Positive Effects of Exercise on the Brain

Exercise can promote good heart and lung health, and strengthen just about every aspect of the body — keeping joints working for longer, strengthening bones and reducing the risk of serious health issues like heart disease and strokes.

Physical activity can have a positive effect on mental health, as well, boosting mood and positive thoughts. However, many people have not heard about the full range of benefits to the brain.

Women Exercising

Image Credit:Iakov Filimonov/Shutterstock.com

How Does Exercise Impact the Brain?

The effects of exercise on the brain are profound, benefitting health and cognition. For example, while experts commonly believed in the past that oxygen consistently saturates blood, new research reveals that blood oxygen levels can rise and fall substantially based on external factors — including physical exertion.

During exercise, as the heart and lungs work overtime, the body drives more oxygen and blood to the brain, leading to elevated oxygenation, improved cerebral blood flow and brain angiogenesis — the growth of blood vessels.

Research shows that higher levels of blood and oxygen in the brain lead to improved cognition and better function of the prefrontal cortex, the region of the brain responsible for decision-making and reasoning.

Despite being a form of physical stress, exercise can assist relaxation. It reduces the levels of stress hormones in the body, like adrenaline and cortisol. It also encourages the release of endorphins, which are chemicals that the body produces to reduce pain and improve mood.

This natural reduction of stress hormones and the release of endorphins are part of why experts believe exercise ties into improved mental health. Research has demonstrated that physical activity can help people overcome or better cope with mental health issues like depression, anxiety, and insomnia. Exercise also boosts mental health in other ways — improving emotional processing and increasing focus and productivity.

Physical exertion causes the body to upregulate — or increase the production of — neurotrophins. These proteins are responsible for the development and survival of neurons, the fundamental cells that make up the brain.

Increased levels of neurotrophins in the body can lead to the development of new neurons, as well as fresh connections and pathways between different parts of the brain. This effect is part of why experts believe that exercise can improve cognition and keep the mind sharp.

Experts also think these new connections and neurons may be why physical activity can prevent or slow down the progression of dementia-causing diseases like Alzheimer's — which, at the moment, has no known cure.

Best of all, research shows that it does not take a lot of exercise to gain most of these benefits. Following the standard exercise recommendation of 150 minutes a week of moderate aerobic activity — or 30 minutes five times per week — is enough to unlock most of these major benefits.

A regular brisk walk or some laps around the pool could be all it takes to boost brain function and reap the rewards.

How Exercise Can Improve Brain Health

In the same way that physical activity keeps the body healthy, it can also boost brain function. Research on the effects of exercise and memory reveals a few different outcomes on the operations of this vital organ.

For example, the increased brain oxygen levels that exercise stimulates can enhance cognitive function and improve the ability to make decisions and think rationally.

It also does not take much exercise to gain these benefits. With just 150 minutes a week, it is possible to notice substantial improvements.

Sources:

  • Bergland, C. (2019, December 5). Christopher B. Way to Increase Brain Oxygenation? Locomotion May Be Key. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-athletes-way/201912/want-increase-brain-oxygenation-locomotion-may-be-key
  • Mandolesi, L et al. (2018). Effects of Physical Exercise on Cognitive Functioning and Wellbeing: Biological and Psychological Benefits. Frontiers in Psychology, 9(509). Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5934999/
  • Exercising to Relax. (2018, July 13). Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/exercising-to-relax
  • Aben, J. (2018, March 9). How to Increase Productivity Through Exercise. Retrieved from https://excellenceinfitness.com/blog/how-to-increase-productivity-through-exercise/
  • Sleiman, S. F et al. (2016). Exercise promotes the expression of brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) through the action of the ketone body β-hydroxybutyrate. ELife. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4915811/
  • Graff-Radford, J. (2019, April 20). Alzheimer's disease: Can exercise prevent memory loss? Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/alzheimers-disease/expert-answers/alzheimers-disease/faq-20057881
  • Charvat, M. (2019, January 7). Why Exercise Is Good for Your Brain. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-fifth-vital-sign/201901/why-exercise-is-good-your-brain

Further Reading

Last Updated: Apr 10, 2020

Kayla Matthews

Written by

Kayla Matthews

Kayla Matthews is a MedTech journalist and writer. Her interest in medical technologies grew out of her larger interest in medical technology, science, and gadgets. Previously, Kayla has been a senior writer for the popular technology site MakeUseOf, as well as had her writing featured on well-known sites such as The Week, The Observer, Computerworld, and The Daily Dot. In the medical and healthcare space, Kayla’s work has been featured on a number of prominent websites. These include SpringerOpen, HIT Consultant, HealthIT Outcomes, Medical Economics and Healthcare Innovation.

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