Besides building muscles, exercise strengthens your brain


It’s a no-brainer that exercise benefits health. It preserves muscle strength, keeps your heart strong, helps maintain a healthy body weight, and staves off chronic diseases such as diabetes. But did you know it’s great for your brain, too?

Dr. Michelle Menard, an adjunct exercise and sports science instructor at Keiser University’s Port St. Lucie Campus, says “exercise increases dopamine and serotonin levels, and we know they make you happier, make you sleep better, and help you to accomplish goals.”

Exercise can also boost memory and thinking skills, according to Dr. Scott McGinnis, an instructor in neurology at Harvard Medical School.

“There’s a lot of science behind this,” Dr. McGinnis says.

When you exercise, you provide a low-dose jolt to the brain’s reward centers – the system of the brain that helps you anticipate pleasure, feel motivated and maintain hope. Over time, regular exercise remodels the reward system, leading to higher circulating levels of dopamine and more available dopamine receptors.

Another hormone that is released after exercise is brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which is essential for neuron health and creating new connections – called synapses – between neurons. A greater number of blood vessels and connections between neurons can increase the size of different brain areas. This effect is especially noticeable in older adults because it can offset the loss of brain volume that happens with age.

Research at UT (University of Texas) Southwestern mapped brain changes after just one year of aerobic workouts and uncovered a potentially critical process – exercise boosts blood flow into two key regions of the brain associated with memory. Notably, the study showed this blood flow can help older people with memory issues improve cognition, a finding that scientists say could guide future Alzheimer’s disease research.

What type of exercise is best?

“Anything that increases your blood flow,” says Dr. Menard. “That includes high-intensity aerobics, swimming and long walks.”

It’s important you don’t let your routine plateau, she cautions. Change your activities, get a buddy system, change your scenery. If you’ve been walking on a treadmill, switch to an outdoor route.

A recent New York Times article quoted Dr. Marc Roig, an associate professor in the School of Physical and Occupational Therapy at McGill University, explaining how exercise offers short-term boosts in cognition.

Studies show that immediately after a bout of physical activity, people perform better on tests of working memory and other executive functions. This may be in part because movement increases the release of neurotransmitters in the brain, including epinephrine and norepinephrine.

“These kinds of molecules are needed for paying attention to information,” Dr. Roig says.

Attention is essential for working memory and executive functioning, he added.

The brain benefits really start to emerge, though, when people work out consistently over time. Studies show that people who work out several times a week have higher cognitive test scores, on average, than people who are more sedentary. Other research has found that a person’s cognition tends to improve after participating in a new aerobic exercise program for several months.

Dr. Roig added the caveat that the effects on cognition aren’t huge and not everyone improves to the same degree. “You won’t acquire a super memory just because you exercised.”

However, as an added bonus, physical activity also benefits mood. People who work out regularly report having better mental health than people who are sedentary. And exercise programs can be effective at treating depression, leading some psychiatrists and therapists to prescribe physical activity.

“You don’t have to make a huge time commitment; 60-to-75 minutes per week is enough, depending on the level of activity,” says Dr. Menard.

The Alzheimer’s Association reports that sustained, moderate intensity aerobic exercise – such as brisk walking or swimming – offers the most benefit for the brain. While researchers don’t know exactly how exercise helps, many believe it has to do with increased flow of oxygen-rich blood to the brain and improved overall health of the blood vessels, which improves brain function.

“If we can’t get blood to the critical areas of the brain responsible for memory and other thinking abilities, those functions are not going to work. Exercise helps clear out the pipes, and helps reduce the buildup of debris, like cholesterol, in our vessels.” Healthy blood vessels also strengthen the brain’s ability to fight or tolerate disease.

In studies with rats, exercise was shown to increase the hormones that help develop new connections between nerve cells, which can improve communication between these cells.

This improved communication likely benefits cognitive function. And, they add, it’s never too late to start.

Studies show you can reap the benefits of exercise and potentially reduce your risk of dementia at any time in your life.

If you can’t do traditional exercises, explore alternatives, Dr. Menard concludes. “Seated workouts like chair yoga won’t raise your heartbeat as much as aerobics exercise, but it’s better than nothing,” she says. Or look into virtual reality headsets, she suggests. If it gets your heart beating faster and your blood flowing to your brain, it’s going to help you achieve your goal.

A National Academy of Sports Medicine Performance Enhancement Specialization (NASM-PES) Licensed Athletic Trainer (LAT) and Certified Athletic Trainer (ATC), Dr. Michelle Menard has BS degree in Athletic Training from Palm Beach Atlantic University and an MS in Exercise Science Health Promotion and Injury Prevention from California University of Pennsylvania. She has a doctorate in Health Sciences Healthcare Education from A.T. Still University, the founding institution of osteopathic healthcare, established in 1892.

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