How Exercise Changes Your Brain, Boosts Your Memory and Helps You Think Better


There are many good reasons to stay physically active and incorporate some form of exercise into your daily routine.

Some big benefits of exercise include staying in shape, keeping obesity at bay and reducing the odds of developing heart disease, strokes and diabetes, a few of the deadly diseases that have gripped people throughout the world.



But there’s another benefit of exercise that is not as well-known — it makes you smarter! Yes, it’s true and even research from across the globe has proven it from time to time.

Exercising has numerous unseen effects on your brain that help boost your memory and improve your learning capabilities. In fact, regular physical activity helps reduce your risk of cognitive impairment and dementia.

When you exercise, your body is in an active mode, which helps improve the circulation of blood and oxygen to the brain. This ensures improved nerve functioning that enhances your overall physical, cognitive and psychological health.

The more you exercise, the more charged up your brain will be! However, this doesn’t necessarily mean hitting the gym or training for a marathon. Just 30 to 40 minutes of moderate exercise like walking or 15 to 20 minutes of vigorous exercise is all that you need each day.



Here are 10 ways in which exercise is beneficial for your brain.

1. Reduces Stress and Anxiety

This is one of the most beneficial effects of exercise on your mental health. Exercising releases various neurochemicals (“feel-good” chemicals) into the brain like dopamine, endorphins and norepinephrine, which are associated with improved cognitive functioning, elevated moods and alertness.

Besides releasing these feel-good hormones, it also purges cortisol and adrenaline, the stress hormones, from your body.

In addition to this, exercise keeps you distracted from your daily stressors by giving you an immediate task on which to focus your energy.



A 1995 study published in the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology highlights the impact of exercise on alleviating stress and anxiety. The study undertook a meta-analysis of 40 different studies to assert that exercising has a low to moderate positive effect on reducing anxiety and stress levels among individuals.

The researchers also noted that the adults who led a more stressful life were among the ones who benefitted the most by exercise.

Another 2013 study published in Frontiers in Psychiatry analyzed several studies and concluded that exercise and regular activity positively impacts the pathophysiological processes of anxiety. Plus, exercise is also associated with reduced anxiety in clinical settings. However, future studies are needed for exploring clinical applications of exercise in anxiety disorders.



2. Fights and Prevents Depression

Exercising helps a great deal in fighting and preventing symptoms of depression.

Depression is a mental condition that limits the abilities of neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) to foster better communication throughout the brain and shuts down the brain’s ability to adapt to new situations.



Exercising helps fight these symptoms of depression by boosting the production of BDNF (brain developed neurotrophic factor). BDNF is a kind of protein that helps the neurotransmitters perform their functions effectively.

A 2004 study published in the Primary Care Companion to the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry highlights the efficacy of exercise in reducing symptoms of depression, even though the mechanisms underlying the antidepressant effects of exercise remain in debate.

This study also suggests that the focus should be on frequency of exercise rather than duration or intensity until the behavior has been well established.

Another 2005 study conducted at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center asserted that 30 minutes of moderately intense exercise five days a week for up to 12 weeks helped reduce symptoms of depression by nearly half. This study is published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

A 2013 study published in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews analyzed the effect of exercise on alleviating symptoms of depression. The study found exercise to be just as effective in treating depression as any other alternative, such as psychological therapy or drugs.

Another study published in 2014 in the journal Cell reports that exercising not only helps fight depression but helps prevent it, too.



3. Lowers Risk of Dementia and Alzheimer’s

Exercising, physically or mentally, is helpful in lowering the risk of developing dementia or Alzheimer’s, two common age-related cognitive problems. This happens because exercising improves the oxygenation and circulation of blood to the brain, which results in higher levels of BDNF, a nerve growth factor that is important for brain health.

According to a 2011 study published in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings, physical exercise has a brain neuroprotective effect and works as a preventive or disease-modifying treatment of dementia and brain aging. The study notes that exercise is as an important therapeutic strategy for dealing with dementia or mild cognitive impairment and it should not be ignored.



A 2012 study published in Molecular Basis of Disease reports that physical activity has a positive impact on brain aging and on cognitive impairment and dementia.

A 2013 study published in PLOS ONE observed that regular exercise was one of the many healthy behaviors exhibited by men that helped significantly reduce the chances of dementia by 60 percent.

Another 2014 study published in Lancet Neurology reports that Alzheimer’s disease incidence might be reduced through improved access to education and use of effective methods targeted at reducing the prevalence of vascular risk factors, which include regular physical activity.



4. Increases IQ

Exercising makes you smarter!

A 2008 study published in Education and Psychological Reviews found that exercise may prove to be a simple, yet important, method of enhancing children’s mental functioning central to cognitive development. The study noted that following aerobic exercise training, children’s performance improved exclusively on tests that involve executive function.



A 2009 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences highlighted the manner in which exercising helps increase your IQ. The study collected data from over 1 million Swedish men and observed a convincing link between cardiovascular fitness and improved IQ.

It asserted that young adults, who improved their cardiovascular health between the ages of 15 to 18, saw a considerable improvement in their IQ levels.

Exercising not only improves IQ levels but also helps overall cognitive development. A 2009 study in the Journal of Clinical Psychology in Medical Settings noted that exercise, especially aerobic exercise, can be extremely helpful in improving cognitive flexibility. The study saw a close link between aerobic exercise and increased mental speed, attention and cognitive flexibility.



5. Improves Mood

Aerobic exercises and strength-training sessions play an important role in boosting your mood.

A 2004 study published in the Polish journal Psychiatria Polska highlights the effects of exercise on anxiety, depression and mood. The study shows that exercise may also increase body temperature, blood circulation in the brain and impact the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and physiological reactivity to stress.



A 2000 study published in Psychosomatic Medicine divided 156 people into three groups of exercise, medication, and exercise and medication. Individuals in the exercise group worked out three times a week for 30 minutes. The result, at the end of the study, showed that exercise alone was as effective as medication or medication with exercise in improving moods and battling depression.

Exercise helps increase the production of serotonin in the brain, a critical neurotransmitter associated with good health and mental well-being. The increased serotonin helps improve your mood, thus exercise acts as a natural antidepressant for your brain.

Also, it spikes the production of dopamine, the feel-good hormone that helps maintain your mood and reduces levels of stress and anxiety.

Plus, exercise releases endorphins, also known as nature’s mood elevator, which have also been shown to improve memory.



6. More Brain Cells

As you age, your brain tissues shrink and the birth of new brain cells is restricted. However, exercising helps reverse this trend by boosting the flow of blood and delivery of much-needed oxygen to the brain.

Exercising helps in building your brains. It helps boost neurogenesis, the process of formation of new nerve cells in the brain. Exercising helps stimulate the production of noggin, a brain protein that drives the production of stem cells and neurogenesis.



Further, exercising helps in producing BDNF, a brain-derived neurotrophic factor that accelerates the growth and proliferation of new brain cells. This holds especially true for the hippocampus, the part of the brain that is responsible for memory. So, the more you exercise, the more BDNF your brain produces.

A 2016 study published in the Journal of Physiology reports that rats that ran on a wheel had two to three times as many new neurons in the hippocampus than sedentary animals after six to eight weeks of observation. The study also reports that high-intensity interval training and resistance training had no or only minor effects on the development of new brain cells.

On the other hand, failing to exercise can actually cause your brain to shrink.

A 2015 study published in Neurology reports that lower cardiovascular fitness and exaggerated exercise blood pressure and heart rate responses in middle-aged adults are associated with a smaller brain volume nearly two decades later. Midlife cardiovascular fitness is an important factor in ensuring healthy brain aging.



7. Slows Down Brain Atrophy

As you enter your 30s, your brain naturally begins to lose volume, especially in the hippocampus region. This may affect your memory, cognitive ability and may even spur the development of dementia.

A 2010 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences observed that exercise, even if moderate, helped in gaining 1 to 2 percent volume in the hippocampus area. Conducted on older adults, the study found that exercising was also helpful in gaining spatial memory.



Another study done in 2013 and published in Scientific Reports established a close relationship between a person’s exercise routine and brain volume. The study, conducted on adults between the ages of 18 to 45, observed that the total minutes of exercise per week was closely linked with the size of the right hippocampus. It revealed that a regular exercise routine was helpful in protecting the brain against natural shrinkage.

8. Increases Memory

Even a moderate exercise routine like walking can help boost learning, memory functions and the ability for abstract reasoning. Improved nutrition and oxygenation of the brain helps enhance better learning and retaining capacities.

Exercising acts as a natural memory booster for your brain. It helps improve brain function by encouraging the growth of new capillaries and enhancing blood flow. This leads to increased production of proteins, which further help in stimulating the growth of new nerve cells and improving the function of neurons in the brain.



A 2011 study published in Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport divided participants into three groups and each group was given two paragraphs and asked to recall as much information as they could. The first group was given the paragraphs after exercise, the second before exercise and the last without any exercise.

The study found the group that was given the paragraphs post-exercise had better recall than any other group.

Exercise also helps in improving your high-level thinking functions (executive functions) that are important for behavior, planning, organizing and problem solving.

In fact, a 2015 study published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise concludes that acute aerobic exercise evokes different positive effects on the brain’s executive functions. The study further asserts that a moderate-intensity exercise routine had a significant impact on brain mechanisms related to short-term memory.

A recent 2016 study published in Current Biology reports that aerobic exercise done four hours after learning improved associative memory. The study also says that exercising at this time also increased hippocampal pattern similarity during retrieval.



9. Improves Concentration and Focus

Exercise helps a great deal in clearing your mind, calming your nerves and improving your focus, attention and concentration. It is also linked to improved learning abilities.



A 2008 study published in Neuroscience Letters journal reported that exercise has a positive effect on the cognitive performance of individuals. The study concluded that bilateral coordinative exercise (CE) is more effective in completing the concentration and attention task. It leads to a pre-activation of parts of the brain, which are also responsible for mediating functions like attention.

Another study published in PLOS ONE journal in 2015 confirms the hypothesis that intense physical exercise improves the attention of children and adolescents with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) symptoms. This may be helpful for their learning, as attention is essential for school performance.



10. Makes You Happier

Exercise is one routine that can make you happier in multiple ways.

Exercising helps in releasing dopamine, a feel-good hormone that plays an important role in happiness and feelings of pleasure. The more you exercise, the secretion of dopamine increases and the happier you are!

Exercise even increases levels of serotonin and endorphins that can make you feel happy.



A 2015 study published in BioMed Central Public Health examined the physical activity data from 15 European countries and concluded that high levels of activity were associated with higher levels of happiness.

Another study published in the Journal of Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing in 2015 found that a physical exercise program had positive effects on happiness among older adults.

Besides, exercising helps boost your self-confidence and esteem that ultimately leads to a happier and livelier you!




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