Exercise & Brain Function


Our brains respond to stimulation much like our muscles do, while inactivity causes gradual decay in both.  However, in addition to improving your physical fitness when you exercise your body, you also provoke neural activity in the brain that improves cognitive abilities.  Therefore, exercise improves physical and mental fitness.  Exercise, specifically aerobic activity, affects brain function in many ways.  By increasing our heart rates we raise oxygenation levels to the brain.  We release hormones that enable growth of brain cells facilitating new neural connections between cells (Recent research from UCLA). Other studies have shown demonstrated how memory and processing functions are improved through aerobic exercise (Department of Exercise Science at the University of Georgia study).

From a behavioral perspective, the same antidepressant-like effects associated with “runner’s high” found in humans are associated with a drop in stress hormones. A study from Stockholm showed that the antidepressant effect of running was also associated with more cell growth in the hippocampus, an area of the brain responsible for learning and memory.  In fact, exercise has been proven to be more effective than antidepressant drugs at combating depression.

Mental and Physical Exercise 
The usage of exercise in conjunction with cognitive training increases your chances of improving mental skills (cognitive functions) if combined properly.  Differences between exercise styles, such as opting for cycling over running, is associated with an enhanced brain function during and after working out. Ballroom dancing, an activity with both physical and mental demands has had a higher impact on cognitive functioning over exercise or mental tasks alone, indicating that the best brain health workouts involve those that integrate different parts of the brain such as coordination, rhythm, and strategy.

Choosing The Right Physical Exercise

  • In general, anything that is good for your heart is great for your brain.
  • Aerobic exercise is great for body and brain: not only does it improve brain function, but it also acts as a “first aid kit” on damaged brain cells.
  • Exercising in the morning before going to work not only spikes brain activity and prepares you for mental stresses for the rest of the day, but also produces increases retention of new information, and better reaction to complex situations.
  • When looking to change up your work out, look for an activity that incorporates coordination along with cardiovascular exercise, such as a dance class.
  • If you like crunching time at the gym alone, opt for circuit training, which both quickly spikes your heart rate, but also constantly redirects your attention.


Want to read more on this subject?  We recommend the book Spark by John Ratey