How does exercise affect the brain?

Exercise your Brain

When people think about the health benefits of regular exercise they usually focus on benefits such as weight loss and heart health- But what about the brain? Exercise is crucial for healthy brain function and a balanced mood. In fact, exercise is one of the most efficient ways to develop new brain cells.

Not only is exercise considered the most scientifically proven cognitive enhancement tool, the neurological benefits of exercise can positively impact almost every aspect of your life. You don’t have to be a pro athlete to reap the brain benefits of exercise, studies have shown even moderate to light exercise can have great cognitive health benefits. This article will examine a few of the scientifically proven ways working out your body affects brain health.

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8 ways Exercise affects your Brain


1 - Exercise can actually increase your IQ

It is pretty common to hear that exercising is a smart thing to do, but rarely do we hear that it can actually make you smarter.

In one of the most comprehensive studies ever done, data from over 1 million Swedish men was examined to study the links between lifestyle and cognition. Researchers discovered an impressive correlation between cardiovascular health and performance on IQ tests. Individuals whom exercise regularly, and have healthier cardiovascular health, tend to perform better on IQ tests. It seems that when you workout your heart you workout your brain as well.

Furthermore, the same study noted that young adults who improved their cardiovascular health through exercise, were able to improve their own personal IQ scores.

2 - Exercise Increases your Focus

Today’s modern world has us more distracted than ever. Being digitally connected 24/7 has our attention jumping from device to device, making it very easy to lose focus on the task at hand. Our attentions spans are shrinking as we are inundated with a seemingly ceaseless amount of information. Fortunately, it appears exercise can help our brains maintain focus in this digitally connected world.

A study demonstrating this cognitive benefit conducted two different experiments. The first experiment compared physically fit individuals to individuals with poor physical fitness. The second experiment examined individuals who were aerobically trained over a few months and compared them to individuals whom did not receive any physical training. Both experiments found positive benefits for those with elevated physical fitness. Individuals whom were physically fit have increased control over their ability to focus, which was demonstrated by having the participants complete a challenging cognitive task.

This is excellent news for regular exercisers, but also very encouraging for those who want to start becoming active- since the the individuals who were aerobically trained over a period of time saw the same cognitive benefits.

3 - Exercise Enhances your Long Term Memory

Memory is a fascinating and complex aspect of cognition. Many of us would agree that we would love to improve our memory. Thankfully science shows strong correlation between regular exercise and improved memory functions. One such study demonstrated positive and significant memory enhancement in individuals who engaged in aerobic exercise.

Another experiment divided individuals into three different groups. Each group was asked to recall as much information as possible from a given excerpt of text. The first group was given the information to memorize after exercising, the second group before exercising, and the final group participated in no exercise. The researchers observed that the group which attempted to memorize the information directly after exercise performed significantly better than the other two groups. This could be due to the increased blood flow to the brain, during and directly after exercise, improving our ability to retain information.

Different forms of exercise are able to have positive effects on memory. The effects of resistance, or weight training exercise, have also been examined. One such study, presented subjects with photos that were charged with different emotional values before having them engage in resistance training. After two days, they were asked to attempt to recall the photos they had been previously shown. Interestingly, individuals whom engaged in resistant training were better able to remember emotionally charged photos compared to those who had not exercised.

4 - Exercises Speeds up Thinking Processes

Everyone hopes to be ‘quick on their feet’ and arrive at solutions faster. Brain fog and slow cognition can be extremely frustrating.

In the brain, quick thinking is often determined by the amount of white matter available. White matter is responsible for the relaying of data in and around your brain. When you have more white matter in your brains neural connections are better insulated and become more efficient at transmitting data. Amazingly, exercise is able to encourage healthy development of white matter in the brain.

One study found that adults with a history of aerobic exercise possess better white matter integrity than sedentary individuals of a similar age. This link between exercise and healthy white matter levels in the brain is also seen in children. A research article published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience highlighted that aerobic fitness levels were positively linked with stronger white matter integrity in younger populations.

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5 - Exercise Increases the Generation of New Brain Cells

The biological process by which we generate new brain cells is called neurogenesis. An important brain chemical, BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor), is able to promote this biological process in our brains.

Many studies which look at the relationship between exercise and BDNF were initially conducted on rodents. New research is beginning to explore this relationship in Human subjects. A scientific review, discovered that short intense and chronic exercise methods are able to increase BDNF levels in humans. Interestingly, the same benefits were not derived from individuals whom only engage in light, moderate exercise such as walking. So, right now it is believed intensive exercise is the most efficient way to encourage the growth of new brain cells.

6 - Exercise Makes your Brain Bigger

Amazingly, exercise is actually able to increase the size of your brain!

A study proved this ability by examining a population of sedentary, but otherwise healthy adults. When these individuals participated in an aerobic fitness program for 6 months, their white and grey matter significantly increased in the brain. The study’s control group, which only engaged in stretching and toning over the same duration of time did not have the same brain enlarging benefits.

7 - Exercise Boosts your Brain’s Executive Functioning

When scientist discuss executive functioning in regards to the brain, they are talking about your higher level thinking skills. These skills involve goal management, task switching, attention, and inhibition control, to name a few. They are extremely important for problem solving, organizing, planning, and our behavioural functioning in society.

Studies show that exercise is a simple and effective way for individuals to optimize their higher order brain functioning. These positive effects are seen across all age demographics. Even older individuals can derive substantial benefit from exercise in order to improve their executive functioning skills. The brain is malleable even as we age, and exercise is a great way to kick it into shape.

8 - Exercise Slows down Brain Atrophy

Unfortunately, starting at around the age of 30 our precious brains start to lose volume as a natural part of aging. The reduction in volume is most notable in the hippocampus and can negatively affect our cognitive abilities.

Scientific research shows that moderate exercise in healthy adults can help increase hippocampus volume by 1-2%. This is quite remarkable, being the equivalent of reversing brain aging by as much as 2 years.

A study examining subjects between the ages of 18-45 found that the amount of exercise and individual partakes in per week is a strong indicator of the size of their hippocampus. Essentially, exercise can produce anti-aging benefits for the brain and protect against the brain’s natural tendency to shrink as we grow older.

These are just a few of the amazing health benefits the brain can derive from regular exercise. We haven’t even touched on all of the great psychological benefits exercise has on the brain.

So next time your thinking about hitting the gym, or going for a run, keep in mind that you are not just improving your physical health, but your brain health as well. Contrary to popular belief, it seems that lifting weights might actually make you smarter!