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Physical Exercise: How It Affects Brain Health

Vaness Monteiro headshot

by Vanessa Monteiro


Exercise helps our bodies, whether we are trying to shed those unnecessary pounds or strengthen our hearts to keep us moving throughout the day. But did you know, exercise does more than just strengthen your body? It helps your brain too!

Get an understanding of the impact that exercise has on brain health, what really happens to our body, and why it’s important.

Man and woman planking outdoors on grass

With regular exercise, our brain is changing in ways that make it become a more efficient organ in our body.

Importance of exersice

Research shows that even small amounts of exercise can improve your memory and cognitive health – the ability of the brain to complete all its basic functions. The benefits could even be greater for people at risk of Alzheimer’s or dementia with one study in Canberra, Australia showing improvements regardless of a person’s initial cognitive state. (1) This suggests improvements to a person’s mental state could happen even after a decline! To top it off, regular daily exercise is noted to increase positive influences in your life by improving social interactions and daily personal achievements. (2)

3 affects exerice has on brain health

With regular exercise, our brains are changing in ways that make it become a more efficient organ in our body and this happens in three major ways: (3)

1. Increase in blood flow

With exercise, we strengthen our bodies as a whole, but a big impact is noticed in our muscular strength. One of the most important muscles in our body is our heart, and as our heart strengthens, our blood flow improves – including flow to the brain. This creates a better environment for our brain, with access to more oxygen and nutrients while having waste removed more easily. This improvement in the brain’s environment helps similarly to how having a clean kitchen with all the necessary ingredients makes cooking go much more smoothly.

2. The growing hippocampus

In the depths of the brain, around the level of the eye, sits the all-important hippocampus. This guy has a lot of responsibilities under his belt and studies have shown that, with exercise, the hippocampus literally gets larger! (4)

Having “more hippocampus” is what results in improvements to our memory. The hippocampus is also responsible for the creation of new brain cells, making our brain more plastic. Though the term may suggest the opposite, plasticity actually means the brain can more easily reorganize itself by forming new connections. Therefore, we are more equipped to deal with new situations or recover if we ever encounter a brain injury.

3. Better connections

One way that exercise makes you smarter is by strengthening the connections in the prefrontal cortex of the brain – the part right behind your forehead. The prefrontal cortex is a “thought leader”, responsible for our ability to problem solve, plan, and reason, which are all improved with these thicker connections. The connections extend into the deep brain tissue – to structures like the amygdala and hypothalamus – and this can give us the ability to have better control of our emotions and impulses (so then you won’t even want that extra cupcake).

Male runner stretching on a bridge while exercising

The real importance is ensuring your exercise schedule stays consistent over a longer period of time.

How much exercise is needed?

Generally speaking, for your brain to be positively impacted by exercise, the type of exercise doesn’t really matter. (5) All types of exercise can improve your cognitive health, whether it be aerobic (forms of “cardio”, swimming, walking), resistance training (weight lifting), or mind-body (yoga, tai-chi) exercise.

The real importance is ensuring your exercise schedule stays consistent over a longer period of time. (5) This means looking more at the hours you work out throughout the month vs. the minutes you work out every week. As well, pushing yourself or gradual increases in your workouts can be extremely beneficial in reversing mental decline as these pushes drive the hippocampus to grow larger. (6)

If you’re tight for time, you can always opt in for high-intensity interval training (HIIT) which is also known as the one-minute workout. (7) One minute, a day – it’s not too good to be true. The benefits of HITT include aid with aging, hormone balance, and burning excess body fat.

Start a plan!

Everyone knows exercise is a good thing to do, but actually getting started can seem very difficult. The challenge of getting off the couch is something we all understand, so here are some tiny “push” suggestions to get you started:

Step 1

Don’t set yourself up for failure with a big plan. Start out small. Commit yourself each week to short-term goals, such as taking the stairs to your 5th-floor apartment every day or going to the gym 3 times a week. As you move forward, repeat your goal for the next week, or if you are feeling motivated. add-on (you can do it).

Step 2

Treat yourself! The rewards we often associate with exercising are related to the activity itself – losing weight, increasing strength or shaving minutes off our run. But, without direct rewards after each workout, we can lose motivation. A great way to get yourself going (or even excited for your workout) is to reward yourself with something extrinsic – a reward that is unrelated to your workout. Maybe you treat yourself to a chocolate smoothie or enjoy an hour of reality tv – whatever it is, this reward will create a link in your brain so that you associate the behavior of exercising to be worthwhile.

Step 3

Find your workout tribe. There is nothing more motivating than having another person keeping you on track. Exercising is much more enjoyable with someone else around, so you can support each other in your challenges while celebrating your shared successes! (8)

The bottom line

Exercise has so many health benefits for brain health. Now that you have the reasons and motivation, it’s time to put your exercise plan to action and start building that IQ!

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