What Can Exercise Do for Your Brain?

What Can Exercise Do for Your Brain?


Heart-pumping, sweat-inducing, stress-relieving—exercise promotes a wide range of well-known physical health benefits. Exercise makes us feel better, but endorphins shouldn’t get all the cognitive credit. Exercise—and its effects on the brain—plays a critical role in our mental health, too. Here are three ways exercise supports your brain function.

  1. Supports cognitive function and mood

Studies have found that even a single bout of acute exercise can have significant positive effects on our cognitive function.1 Research suggests that aerobic exercise helps create new brain cells—a process called neurogenesis—and improves the way the brain works. Neurogenesis occurs in the hippocampus and striatum and is essential to learning and memory.2 Tough workouts, like high-intensity interval training or HIIT, can also boost decision-making and higher thinking.3 Not to mention exercise has been proven over and over to boost our moods. Working out makes us happier, healthier, smarter, and more positive humans.

  1. Helps prevent cognitive decline

As we age, our brain cells die, and the brain itself shrinks, losing important functions in the process. Add to that, cardiovascular risk factors that disrupt endothelial cell function and poor sleep that impacts white matter integrity and the clearance of toxic proteins. Exercise, however, has been shown to decrease the likelihood of developing vascular risk factors and improve quality of sleep—both of which reduce the risk of cognitive decline.4

  1. Enhances the effect of brain training

In efforts to prevent cognitive decline, some people engage in “brain training.” Brain training is a system of exercising the brain to improve aspects of cognition. Brain training programs are designed to improve functions like memory, attention, focus, and brain speed.

One study that focused on the combined effects of brain training and exercise found that the combination of the two had a synergistic effect—even more impactful than exercise alone.5 The research suggests that exercise increases memory linked with hippocampal function and, in turn, that fitness improvements are correlated with increased brain-derived neurotrophic factor.5

Whether you prefer a morning jog in the park, a 20-minute, midday HIIT workout, or an after-work weight room session, exercise plays a critical role in supporting your brain throughout the day. How you perform at work now—and how well your brain ages in the future—depends on your breaking a sweat. A healthy, well-trained, and cared-for brain will fare better and recover from injury quicker with the support of regular exercise. Isn’t it time that you got started?

As always, consult with your healthcare practitioner before beginning any exercise program.


  1. Brain Plasticity. 2017;2(2):127-152.
  2. Choi S et al. Science. 2018:361(6406).
  3. Dougherty RJ et al. J Alzheimers Dis. 2017;58(4):1089-1097
  4. Curr Opin Psychiatry. 2014 Nov; 27(6): 478–483.
  5. Heisz JJ et al. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. 2017;29(11):1895-1907.

Dr. Silverman is a paid consultant and guest writer for Metagenics.


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