Exercise and the brain

Betsy Blitch

It wouldn’t make sense to write a semester’s worth of articles about Living Well with Life Online without talking about how exercise affects the brain. Especially this year where we are missing out on the extra steps we naturally get from walking to the dining hall, or even walking to our desk at work, taking the time to get out of the house and exercise is especially important. Not only does exercise influence your physical health and shape, but it benefits your mental health, memory and cognitive functions, as well as prevents brain aging. 

In the field of neuroscience, we are now learning that the brain can change as we age. Traditionally, there was the idea that we are born with a set amount of neurons, and as we aged and cells die off, these cells are not able to regenerate. However, the exciting news is that studies are now showing that activities like exercise and/or meditation can actually alter our neuronal pathways to boost memory and overall brain health. As I hope you will learn by the end of this article, the benefits of activity – both physical and mental – are countless. 


The reason exercise is so great is because it increases blood flow to our brains (yes, there is a purpose behind the tomato-red faces). This supplemental blood is incredibly important because it helps decrease overall inflammation along with releasing growth factors. Since chronic illnesses and older brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s are due to inflammation and brain cells dying off, this blood flow in our brains is much needed. And as I’m sure most people know by now due to a general push to fight obesity in this country, those who exercise regularly reduce their risk of chronic illnesses such as IBS or diabetes, along with sudden onset health issues like heart attacks or strokes. The combination of increased heart rate, blood flow and general activity works as well to maintain insulin levels and keep blood pressure levels down. Sometimes it can be hard to motivate yourself to get off the couch and get outside, but just knowing how much you are doing for your physical health (both in the short term and long term) can hopefully boost your motivation! 

Of course, the physical benefits of exercise are essential, but what I find most interesting is how the brain ages, and particularly how regular exercise has such a big role in this aging process. As I mentioned above, our brain is one of the few systems in our bodies that does not regenerate cells when they die off. This explains why diseases such as Alzheimer’s or dementia are so much more common in older people – these chronic conditions are caused by cells dying off over time and the connections in our brains weakening. This is also important in understanding why brain injuries are taken much more seriously than a broken bone; while the bone can (hopefully) grow back over time, the brain doesn’t have all of the same capabilities. However, recent studies have started to show that exercise plays a significant role in delaying the brain aging process! The hippocampus is an area in our brains that is commonly known for producing memories, and scientists are finding that when we have increased blood flow from exercise, the growth factors released actually go to the cells in our hippocampus. If that was too much neuroscience all in one sentence, think of it this way: the blood flow from regular exercise essentially boosts our memory cells, delaying them dying off or weakening. In other words, exercise can drastically reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s or dementia by preventing our memory cells from dying off. 

The Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease conducted a study with participants ages 60 and older that all showed signs of memory decline. Half of them exercised regularly for 12 months while the rest just participated in stretching. They found that those who has frequent physical activity (even light exercise) had increased blood flow to the hippocampus and other important areas of the brain for memory. Even more, these participants showed a 47% improvement in memory scores from the baseline before and after the 12-month study. I have linked the credentials and journal article for this study at the bottom if you want to read more about it. The main takeaway here is that when we work out, or even just go for walks, we are benefitting our bodies in the short and long terms. 

Finally, we need exercise for our mental health and sleep quality as well. Especially now when it seems mental health issues like anxiety and depression are on high as we push through social distancing, you might want to consider taking the time to get outside and get moving. When you increase your heart rate and work out, your brain actually releases endorphins – neurotransmitters including serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine – that work to reduce pain all around, make us happier, and help us regulate our moods. There is a common saying that dopamine is a natural happy chemical, so having a little extra of this neurotransmitter certainly can’t hurt us. 

To sum it all up, regular exercise is essential for our bodies, as it helps everything from mental health to physical health to memory to preventing brain aging. Hopefully now you know why there are always library signs telling us to get exercise during stressful times like exams – taking the short break from studying can actually help you remember things better while also reduce your overall stress! Of course, the type of exercise and how much of it you get will depend on your body and what is best for YOU. Just don’t make the mistake of working out too much – too much of a good thing is definitely not a good thing. Also, if you are exercising at stenuous levels, you want to make sure you are getting protein afterwards, as without it, your body doesn’t recover as well. The weather is beautiful, so I encourage you to find time each day to get up from your computer even if it just means going for a walk – your mind and body will thank you in the short term and the long term!


Works Cited

Binu P. Thomas, Takashi Tarumi, Min Sheng, Benjamin Tseng, Kyle B. Womack, C. Munro Cullum, Bart Rypma, Rong Zhang, Hanzhang Lu. Brain Perfusion Change in Patients with Mild Cognitive Impairment After 12 Months of Aerobic Exercise Training. Journal of Alzheimer's Disease, 2020; 75 (2): 617 DOI: 10.3233/JAD-190977