How Exercise Affects the Brain

August 8, 2019 -

Exercise changes the brain in ways that protect memory and thinking skills.

• Exercise helps memory and thinking through both direct and indirect means

o Directly: from its ability to reduce insulin resistance, reduce inflammation, and stimulate the release of growth factors— chemicals in the brain that affect the health of brain cells, the growth of new blood vessels in the brain, and the abundance and survival of new brain cells.

o Indirectly: exercise improves mood and sleep, and reduces the effects of stress and anxiety. All of these factors can contribute to cognitive impairment.

o Aerobic exercise (also known as cardio) raises your heart rate and increases blood flow to your brain.

▪ As your increased breathing pumps more oxygen into your bloodstream, more oxygen is delivered to your brain. This leads to neurogenesis—or the production of neurons—in certain parts of your brain that control memory and thinking. Neurogenesis increases brain volume, and this cognitive reserve is believed to help buffer against the effects of dementia.

▪ Another link between cognition and exercise is neurotrophins, which are proteins that aid neuron survival and function. It has been noted that exercise promotes the production of neurotrophins, leading to greater brain plasticity, and therefore, better memory and learning. In addition to neurotrophins, exercise also results in an increase in neurotransmitters in the brain, specifically serotonin and norepinephrine, which boost information processing and mood.

• Research shows how exercise improves brain function

o In a study researchers found that regular aerobic exercise, the kind that gets your heart and your sweat glands pumping, appears to boost the size of the hippocampus, the brain area involved in verbal memory and learning.

o Many studies have suggested that the parts of the brain that control thinking and memory have greater volume in people who exercise versus people who don’t.

o “Even more exciting is the finding that engaging in a program of regular exercise of moderate intensity over six months or a year is associated with an increase in the volume of selected brain regions,” says Dr. Scott McGinnis, a neurologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and an instructor in neurology at Harvard Medical School.

• How much exercise is required to improve memory?

o Half an hour of moderate physical activity most days of the week, or 150 minutes a week. If that seems daunting, start with a few minutes a day, and increase the amount you exercise by 5 or 10 minutes every week until you reach your goal.

o Walking is a great form of exercise either inside or outside. If you don’t want to walk, consider other moderate-intensity exercises such as the Nustep, recumbent bike, water exercise or taking a class in the Wellness Center.

o Don’t have the discipline to do it on your own? Try a class or work out with a friend who’ll hold you accountable.

o Whatever exercise and motivators you choose, commit to establishing exercise as a habit, almost like taking a prescription medication. After all, they say that exercise is medicine, and that can go on the top of anyone’s list of reasons to work out.