The Impact of Exercise on the Brain

March 19, 2020
Many studies have revealed that you're in optimal shape when your brain is "high" on exercise. Physical activity is necessary for the proper functioning of this organ as it keeps it from deteriorating. Plus its effects on cognitive abilities are unequaled.

Regular physical activity is a decisive factor for human well-being. This is because exercise is good for our brain and that’s a fact. Our psychological and physical wellbeing depends largely on the health of our brain. Thus, it’s important to stay active if you want to improve our quality of life.

There’s plenty of evidence that exercise is good for our brain. Studies have shown it slows aging and can help prevent serious diseases such as Alzheimer’s. Likewise, it has a strong impact on our mood and quality of life.

People have been affirming since ancient times that exercise is good for our brains. The famous Latin quote “Mens sana in corpore sano”(healthy mind, healthy body) was even coined in the second century before our era by the poet Juvenal. Today, and thanks to science, we know he was right.

Exercise is good for the health of our brain

In principle, exercise is good for our brain because the brain heavily relies on the cardiovascular system. This, in turn, works much better when you practice physical activities regularly. Cardiovascular health has a direct impact on the health of our brains.

Overall, several studies show a relationship between frequent physical activity and a lower risk of neurodegenerative diseases. Likewise, research proved that physical activity improves various cognitive functions and brings many psychological benefits.

A group of scientists from the Western Sydney University and the University of Manchester published a study about this in NeuroImage, a journal. According to their research, some areas of the brain decrease 5% every decade after the age of 40. When people exercise, this percentage can reduce all the way down to zero.

A man carrying a boy on his back.
Exercise is good at any age and you can do it with others.

Read on: Four Things You Can Do to Strengthen Your Brain

Physiological and cognitive benefits

One of the main reasons why exercise is good for our brains is it generates more neurons. For a long time, people believed that this organ couldn’t create new cells, but today we know it can. The name for this process is “neurogenesis.”

The hippocampus is one of the brain areas involved in neurogenesis. In an experiment with 737 people, led by Dr. Joseph Firth, they found that regular aerobic exercise increased the size of the left hippocampus area. Thus, it promotes the formation of new neurons.

All in all, scientists have discovered that exercise:

  • Maintains gray matter. This matter is responsible for data transmission and mental agility but deteriorates over the years. However, studies revealed that is denser and more complete in those who exercise, regardless of their age.
  • Improves executive functions. These functions allow humans to perform tasks and solve complex problems.
  • Improves concentration. Several studies show that those who exercise regularly find it easier to concentrate.
  • Increases cognitive flexibility. Physical activity increases the ability to easily switch from one task to another.
  • Improves long-term memory. One study showed that people who exercise before memorizing a text remember it better than those who do little physical activity.
  • Slows brain aging. There’s research that proves that those who exercise regularly increase the volume of the cerebral hippocampus by 1 to 2% after the age of 30.

Learn more: Amnesia Symptoms and Prevention

The psychological and emotional benefits of exercise

A woman meditating.
Exercise has an impact on your emotions. This is because activity floods the brain with substances that generate symptoms of satisfaction.

As if all the above weren’t enough, other studies also proved that there are many psychological and emotional benefits derived from physical activity. Mental health is one of the most important components of proper brain functioning and physical activity helps improve and maintain it.

Some of the reasons why physical exercise is good for the health of our brains are:

  • It prevents and reduces depression. Physical activity is a natural antidepressant because it affects the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that’s decisive to feelings of well-being and overall mood.
  • It reduces stress and anxiety. The body releases endorphins when we exercise (dopamine and norepinephrine, to be precise). Overall, they help reduce states of restlessness and irritation and promote emotional stability.
  • Finally, it increases a person’s self-esteem and creativity. Physical exercise also influences our motivation and level of vitality. All these contributions make us more creative and proactive. Likewise, physical activity helps reduce withdrawal syndrome when we’re trying to quit an addiction.

So what are you waiting for? Get moving! Your brain will thank you.

Herrero, L. B., & Ferradaz, M. A. L. (2011). Aportes del ejercicio físico a la actividad cerebral. Lecturas: Educación física y deportes, (160), 1-7.