Exercise trail walking Exercise trail walking

How Exercise Builds a Better Brain

Exercise trail walkingWe have long known that regular exercise leads to improved muscle tone, cardiovascular fitness, flexibility, and balance, and reduced risk of a number of chronic diseases. In addition, a growing body of research has found that exercise can enhance cognition and improve mood. In some studies, even a single session of exercise has been shown to have brain benefits.

Eight Benefits

The human brain is a fairly adaptive organ in that it can undergo both structural and functional changes in response to training or environmental demands. This quality is referred to as “neuroplasticity.” We now know from several studies that exercise (1) facilitates the development of new neurons in the brain by increasing a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), (2) increases angiogenesis (in which new blood vessels are formed from existing ones), and (3) increases blood flow to the brain. These changes are associated with a number of benefits, listed below:

1. Reduction in both age-related cognitive decline as well that seen in Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia—including among people who carry a gene linked to Alzheimer’s.

2. Improved general cognitive ability, as well as enhanced working memory, reaction time, language skills, verbal learning, visual-spatial skills, and executive functioning (planning, paying attention, decision making, etc.). In some studies, regular exercise has been linked to improved mathematics and reading scores.

3. Reduced severity of depression symptoms. In some research, the effect has been comparable to that achieved with antidepressants.

4. Improved sleep in those who have anxiety and/or depressive issues.

5. In animal models, engaging in an exercise program for more than two weeks has been associated with a protective effect against depression despite exposure to a laboratory stressor.

6. For regular exercisers, a greater mood enhancement benefit after even a single session of exercise as compared to nonexercisers.

7. Reduced “state” (in the moment) and “trait” (more enduring) anxiety. One meta-analysis found noticeable benefits after 10 weeks of regular exercise, with greater benefits after 16 weeks.

8. Increased resistance to experimentally induced panic attacks in those diagnosed with panic after a program of moderate- to high-intensity exercise.

Furthermore, related to No. 8, preliminary research has found that people who have panic have reduced levels of BDNF in the hippocampus. Exercise has been shown to increase the levels of BDNF in the hippocampi of those with panic, but not change levels in control groups. Enhanced BDNF in the hippocampus may improve one’s ability to respond to exposure-based therapies for panic.

Recent research has found that even a single bout of exercise has a small but significant positive effect on cognitive performance. This may be due to changes in heart rate, BDNF, endorphins, and the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine.

In Summary

Exercise has been shown to improve general health, lessen the likelihood of developing a chronic physical illness, reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, and improve cognitive functions such as learning, memory, and executive functioning, including attention. Furthermore, exercise has been demonstrated to benefit people across the lifespan. Given the cognitive benefits associated with exercise, exercising regularly may be especially important for those struggling with mood issues or who have difficulty focusing and following through on tasks, such as those who have attention-deficit hyperactivity (ADHD).

Although more research needs to be done to adequately understand how exercise impacts the brain, the research clearly indicates benefits of exercise on cognitive abilities that otherwise tend to decline over time. Given the myriad other health benefits associated with regular exercise, it’s worth aiming to do so regularly—at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise on most days of the week. Of course, if you are new to exercise or have a medical condition, make sure you have clearance from your doctor before beginning an exercise program.

Be well!


  1. Asmundson, G.J., Fetzner, M.G., Deboer, L.B., Powers, M.B., Otto, M.W., and J.A. Smits (2013). Let’s Get Physical: A Contemporary Review of the Anxiolytic Effects of Exercise for Anxiety and Its Disorders. Depress Anxiety. 30(4):362-73
  2. Hillman, C.H., Erickson, K.I., and A.F. Kramer (2008). Be smart, exercise your heart: Exercise Effects on Brain and Cognition. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 9, 58-65. http://dericbownds.net/uploaded_images/exercise_hillman.pdf
  3. LeMoyne, E.L., Curnier, D., St-Jacques, S., and D. Ellemberg (2012). The Effects of Exercise During Pregnancy on the Newborn’s Brain: Study Protocol for a Randomized Controlled Trial. Trials, 13:68. http://www.biomedcentral.com/content/pdf/1745-6215-13-68.pdf
  4. MacIntosh, B.J., Crane, D.E., Sage, M.D., Rajab, A.S., Donahue, M.J., et al. (2014). Impact of a Single Bout of Aerobic Exercise on Regional Brain Perfusion and Activation Responses in Healthy Young Adults. PLoS ONE 9(1): e85163. http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0085163#pone-0085163-g004
  5. Chang, Y.K., Labban, J.D., Gapin, J.I., and J.L. Etnier. The effects of acute exercise on cognitive performance: A meta-analysis. Brain Research, Volume 1453, 9 May 2012, Pages 87-101

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  • Leave a Comment
  • Leigh

    February 26th, 2014 at 12:09 PM

    Sometimes I feel like I exercise all the time so why am I not a genius by now? ;)

  • Alston L

    February 26th, 2014 at 3:41 PM

    I have always been somewhat active, thankfully, and I am pretty sure that this is why I feel so much better than many peers around my age. I am no spring chicken, but I am still able to think quickly and move quickly, and I attribute so much of that to having the good sense to lead a healthy lifestyle for many years. I have had some slip ups, we all do, but by habit I always come back around to eating right and taking care of my body. I think that has so many more health benefits than many care to admit because there are times that it is hard to commit to that daily activity or to a healthier diet. But when I see friends my age who look and feel ten or even twenty years older than we are, I am so grateful to parents who instilled this in me early and that I have taken what they said all those years ago to heart.

  • Jermaine

    February 27th, 2014 at 3:43 AM

    Then this makes me really happy to see so many older people working out at the Y while I am there. When I first started I sort of thought it was just another social gathering for them, because there aren’t many of them who actually look like they are working too hard. But after going for a while I saw that it was more than that. They were maintaining those social relationships in a way that still allows them to be active, and I think that this is such a positive thing for people their age. Or any age really.

  • Richard

    February 27th, 2014 at 4:20 AM

    I have struggled with anxiety, dysphoria, major depression as long as I can remember. I have tried many different meds, talk therapy and menus. Among the best results I have had is lifting weights to lift my mood besides going to a sun drenched state. Within 30 minutes of a heavy workout, even if heavy for me might be light for others, I feel much better and have some relief from the cloud that normally keeps me in perpetual sulking land.

  • lane

    February 28th, 2014 at 3:47 AM

    I want to make this a part of my daily routine but I have a hard time fitting it in with all of the other stuff that I have.

    Job, kids, spouse, it makes it seem impossible to carve out even 30 minutes for me without waking up even earlier ir going to bed even later.

  • Della

    March 1st, 2014 at 5:48 AM

    I don’t know if this is defeating the purpose but I always seem to get some of my best work done while I am at the gym. It is a great time to check email, respond to texts, and basically get some stuff done that I would otherwise not take the time to do. It not only clears my head but allows me to clear off my to do lists and inbox too!

  • Clary

    March 4th, 2014 at 3:53 AM

    from my own experience when I exercise that makes me want to take care of the other things in life as well. on a whole I start doing all the right things, watching what I eat, trying to get in more activity throughout the entire day, being more content and in tune really with what I am feeling and resolving to take care of those things. when I incorporate more activity into my life it is like this completion, like I want to make my whole life better and not just this one certain aspect. there have been times when I have been really good at this and times where I have also been pretty slack but I try the best I can to keep it consistent.

  • Traci Stein

    March 4th, 2014 at 10:25 AM

    Thank you all for your comments and for reading this post. You raise some terrific points about the benefits of exercise, as well as the challenge of fitting it in. Lane, I appreciate your honesty about the struggle to fit in exercise after attending to job, family, etc. I too find this challenging, as I am sure many others do as well.

    For anyone looking to incorporate exercise into a busy schedule, it can help to first know what your exercise goal is. It requires more time, consistency, and structure if the goal is a particularly ambitious one, such as to lose a good deal of weight or train like an elite athlete. If the goal is more moderate, such as to achieve or maintain good general health and an enhanced sense of well being, you may need to invest less time per day and find you have more flexibility with regard to the type of exercise you select. One thing I encourage is scheduling the appointment to exercise in your calendar, just as you would anything else that you decided to commit to. Keep your appointment.

    With regard to juggling family responsibilities, one way of increasing exercise opportunities is to make what you do a family affair – e.g., taking family walks, joining a local YMCA together and going all at the same time, doing an exercise video or yoga at home with older children, etc. If you normally find time to watch TV, you can find time to get some exercise (even if it’s while you watch TV).

    If your family members are not quite on board yet with exercising together, another thought is to delegate some of what you do to those who are able to help out (cooking, cleaning, shopping, etc.) so you can carve out time for exercise. There may be some resistance at first, but let them know that this request is important to you, as is your health.

    Finally, you may need or want to get up earlier or go to bed later to accommodate your exercise schedule if it feels too challenging to incorporate it into other parts of your day. As with any behavior/lifestyle change, you don’t need to aim for perfect, however, you will need to be willing to make some changes. But feeling better is worth the effort.

    Be well!

  • Sach

    May 11th, 2015 at 7:22 AM

    I’ve been suffering from dysthymia, anxiety, chronic migraine and clinical depression since I was 15. Was officially diagnosed after the birth of my daughter 3 years ago whe things hit rock bottom. While medication helps, it is most effective when coupled with weight lifting. This combination of medication, rigorous exercise and clean eating gives me the most relief I’ve had in years. While it’s a struggle to be consistent, I would definitely attest to its effectiveness. Seeing and feeling the difference is what keeps me motivated to continue. The cloud all but disappears and dare I say I even feel happy some times.

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