Exercise and Fitness Guide

How Exercise Helps Your Brain

CRegal Jan 16th, 2013 (updated Jun 9th, 2016)
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Some may think of exercise as a purely physical routine – walk, run, bike, and see physical results. However, the benefits stretch beyond just a tighter stomach or even a lower resting heart rate. Exercise can improve symptoms of countless conditions and can help prevent others from occurring at all. Exercise is good for the immune system and can help better regulate blood sugar levels. Exercise is even good for the brain. Here’s recent research that backs that up.

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Growing brain cells
Growing brain cells

Inactive people create new brain cells all the time; however, exercise has been proven to supercharge that cell creation.  Physical activity increases the presence of insulin-like growth factors and vascular endothelial growth factor, which leads to the creation of more brain cells in the hippocampus.

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Exercise improves mood
Exercise improves mood

Physical activity can change the chemical makeup of the brain, according to research published in Trends in Neuroscience.  The so-called "joggers high" is a product of a number of factors, including more efficient utilization of serotonin, which controls mood, anxiety and resiliency.  Physical activity activates the monoamine system, which promotes recovery from depression. 

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Fighting dementia
Fighting dementia

It has been thought that performing "cognitive exercises," such as reading a book or doing crossword puzzles were effective in stopping dementia as a person ages.  However, new research from Edinburgh University indicates that exercise, and not mentally challenging activities, may be the key to stopping the brain from shrinking and showing signs of age-related dementia. 

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Sharpening memory
Sharpening memory

Memory begins to slip as we age, correlated to the loss of hippocampal synapses – a type of brain cell.  A 2012 study in Biological Psychiatry found that, after 12 weeks of voluntary running among aging rats, the brain cells that control memory were not dying off as quickly.  Voluntary running restored density of the synapses, as well as to other regions of the brain linked to memory. 

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Improving cognitive function
Improving cognitive function

A 2008 study from Nature Reviews Neuroscience found that physical activity – specifically aerobic exercise – helps improve brain function.  Tested on both humans and animals, exercise was found to help prevent obesity, which could improve brain performance, especially among young people in school. 

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Better learning abilities in childhood
Better learning abilities in childhood

In an analysis of 111 studies related to exercise and brain functionality, researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign concluded that exercise is important to jumpstart academic performance in children.  Exercise appears to improve memory, attention and decision-making abilities.  As children age, exercise benefits apply to multi-tasking, planning and inhibition. 

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Control hyperactivity, inattention
Control hyperactivity, inattention

ADHD is characterized by hyperactivity, inattention and impulsive decision-making, and is often classified as a "children's disorder."  Though ADHD is still a factor in the lives of many adults, research from Dartmouth University may indicate that exercise could be the answer to helping control some symptoms of the condition.  Exercise increases blood circulation, supplying the brain with more oxygen and nutrients.

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Lasting effects on the brain
Lasting effects on the brain

After citing the good news, there is also one major problem with the exercise-brain connection: it needs to be kept up in order to see continuing benefits.  Though the brain clearly responds well to physical activity, it will gradually lose its benefits if exercise is not continued.