6 Brain-Changing Benefits of Exercise

6 Brain-Changing Benefits of Exercise

Scientifically reviewed by: Michael A. Smith, MD

We’ve all heard that exercise is good for us at one point or another, but have you ever wondered why that is? Sure, exercise helps us get in shape and feel more confident in a swimsuit, but the benefits go beyond a healthy weight and lean muscle mass.

A large body of research shows that exercising regularly is terrific for cognitive health and performance. So, what does exercise do for the brain? Let’s jump in!

1. Exercise boosts memory

Man having improved memory after regular exercise

Our brain, a three-pound mass of neurons and other brain cells that communicate and work cohesively, is how we experience and interact with the world. Unfortunately, as we age, the brain can become vulnerable to decline— just as any other body part does —and life’s most precious memories can start to get fuzzy.

But losing that steel-trap memory doesn’t have to be a foregone conclusion. Here’s where regular exercise comes in! When you engage in physical activity, your breath and heart rate increase, sending newly oxygenated blood to your brain and throughout your body, which has two crucial outcomes.

  1. A more “plastic” brain—Regular exercise encourages neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to strengthen and build connections between brain cells (it can rewire itself) as we learn and experience new things.
  2. New brain cells—Full body movement like walking/jogging, biking, and even doing house chores have been shown to prompt neurogenesis, the production of brain cells or neurons.

Research shows that because exercise encourages plasticity, people who stay physically active have an increase in volume in the hippocampus, the area of the brain associated with memory and learning. Of course, the more you enjoy a workout routine, the more likely you are to do it—so, it’s a win-win for your body and your brain to find a favorite way to break a sweat.

2. Exercise helps you focus

Woman focusing on task for more productive day

Having good concentration in an era where we’re constantly distracted by text or email notifications is almost like having a superpower—staying focused on your “to-do” list helps you have a more productive day.

And what does exercise have to do with improving your focus? It turns out: quite a lot. Research suggests that moderate to high-intensity exercise can boost concentration (and overall brain health) because it prompts the release of dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin—neurotransmitters, or brain chemicals that influence focus and attention.

The next time you feel stuck on a stubborn task, take a 10-minute walk, stretch or do some push-ups; deep breaths and the increased blood flow to the brain can help you sustain longer periods of focused mental activity.

3. Sweat now, sleep better later

Man getting restful sleep an hour after exercise

There’s nothing worse than having to meet a deadline with a groggy mind. We all know that restful sleep is essential for our mental health and overall well-being.  Exercise makes it more likely that your ZZZs will be of an A+ caliber.

While working up a sweat to get better sleep may seem a bit counterintuitive, research suggests that having an exercise routine helps your brain fall asleep faster and get restful sleep. That’s because regular exercise promotes deep sleep, which allows your cells to repair and rejuvenate (from head-to-toe).

But make sure you schedule your sweat session at least 1-2 hours before your bedtime. This gives your body time to cool down and your brain to “unwind” and reuptake all those endorphins that felt so good after exercise… but can keep us up at night.

Taking melatonin also helps you maintain a healthy sleep/wake pattern so your brain can get the sleep it needs.

4. Work out and worry less

Man feeling relaxed after stress relief

Regular exercise can help you better manage your stress levels. Interestingly, exercise itself is a form of stress. So why would inflicting more stress upon yourself help you keep your calm?

Contrary to popular belief, stress is not the bad guy. It’s a biological process that prepares you to be ready for whatever may come when you face an uncomfortable situation. (Like when you hear “duck!” and your body reacts to get out of the way.) The problem comes when our stress response gets out of balance, leaving us worked up and frazzled. There’s a reason why when we’re having “one of those days,” going for a run or taking a kickboxing class is just what the body needs.

And while busy schedules make it challenging to fit exercise into our daily routines, extensive research shows that moving more is a great way to stress less.

That’s because physical activity provides stress relief by imitating the effects of stress (aka the “fight or flight” response). There’s a whole cycle of physiological experiences you go through during a workout session that aren’t all that unlike being in a suddenly stressful situation. You start to get warm, then you feel challenged, then (possibly) a burst of energy or exhilaration if you hit that classic “runner’s high” moment. Finally, when you’re all done, sweaty towel in hand, you will feel relaxed, calm and refreshed.

5. Exercise your way to optimism

Woman feeling calm through deep breathing

Did you know that exercise helps you, quite literally, think happy thoughts? This might be hard to believe when your muscles are being challenged, but noticing that (temporary) occasional discomfort is actually good for your mental outlook.

That’s because a workout isn’t that far removed from the act of meditation. When you exercise, you’re engaging your mind and body. You’re consciously aware of the connection between your brain and your muscles; you pay attention to how you move, your form, and your breathing—everything works in unison to help you hold that crow’s pose or run for several miles, taking your mind away from pestering thoughts.

Meanwhile, the deep breathing improves your mood by promoting the release of endorphins and other brain chemicals that influence your emotions. The end result of regular exercise? A more positive mindset.

6. Young at brain: The anti-aging power of exercise

Woman solving a sudoku puzzle for better cognative activity

Time spares no one, especially when it comes to the brain. Our cognitive abilities and performance naturally begin to decline as we age. Factors such as a poor diet, aging cells and oxidative stress make us susceptible to cognitive health-related implications. We may notice that we have difficulty remembering conversations or planning and organizing events, or we can’t remember what we did with our glasses (that happen to be on the top of our heads).

The good news is that you can be proactive to combat age-related cognitive decline, and regular exercise is marvelous at doing precisely that!

Physical exercise encourages better cell-to-cell communication, prompts neurotransmitter and hormonal balance, and helps promote a healthy inflammatory response. You can also give your mind (and neural connections) a workout by choosing hobbies and activities that stimulate your mind, such as learning a new language, solving puzzles, catching up on your reading list or mastering a musical instrument. Aging is inevitable, but you can do your part to stay young at heart (and mind).

What’s the best exercise for brain health?

Older woman dancing for both physical and mental exercise

If you’re worried about having to do some strenuous exercise to promote your cognitive health, fear not! You don’t have to exercise until your legs feel like jelly to get those brain-friendly gains. Whether you dance, jump rope, or choose yoga, get your body moving at least 30 minutes three to four times a week, or aim for 150 minutes of full-body movement a week.

If you’re transitioning from couch potato to “getting back on track” after being inactive for a while, remember to take it slow and build on your progress. Even if it’s just 10-minute workouts, the important thing is to start and keep going. As your mind and body change, you’ll soon notice you look forward to getting on your mat or showing up to your Zumba class.

It’s never too early to start caring for your brain. A brain-friendly lifestyle includes regular body movement, eating nutrient-rich foods, getting restful sleep and drinking enough water. Of course, having a smart nutritional strategy also helps maintain optimal cognitive health and performance, especially in the long haul.

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