Physical exercise boosts intelligence, memory, concentration and overall brain fitness. Learn how exercise is one of the best ways to train your brain.
Mental activities like online brain training, playing chess, or learning a second language are considered good brain exercises.
They get a lot of press for their ability to increase intelligence, memory, and concentration, and keep your brain fit for life.
While these kinds of mental stimulation are excellent for boosting brain power, the best kind of exercise might not be an armchair activity.
There’s substantial evidence that physical exercise might be the single most powerful exercise for the brain. (1)
Exercise has been found to boost the brains of children, seniors, and everyone in between. (2)
Here are some of the ways physical exercise can make you smarter and happier, while protecting your brain from mental disorders, aging, and degeneration.
Physical Exercise Increases Brain Plasticity
Brain plasticity, or neuroplasticity, is your brain’s ability to keep growing and changing throughout your lifetime.
Until fairly recently it was believed your brain was static and that you were born with a set number of brain cells and level of intelligence. (3)
But scientists now know this is not true.
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Brain plasticity is associated with improved intelligence, memory, mood and happiness, along with increased brain volume that can help prevent degenerative brain diseases like Alzheimer’s. (4)
There are several known ways to increase brain plasticity and exercise is one of the best. (5)
Even as little as one 30-minute exercise session will improve brain plasticity. (6)
Exercise Floods the Brain with Oxygen and Nutrients
Your brain needs a constant supply of oxygen and glucose.
But since it can’t store either, it relies on a steady supply from blood circulation.
Exercise increases circulation delivering more oxygen, glucose, and nutrients to your brain.
Increased circulation also helps remove debris, like toxins and metabolic waste products, that builds up in your brain.
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The average human brain has an amazing 400 miles of blood vessels.
But this number gradually decreases with age. (7)
Exercise can help offset brain aging by building new capillaries.
Exercise Results in a Bigger Brain — and a Better Memory
Just as getting regular exercise builds bigger muscles, it also increases the size of your brain.
Exercise increases brain volume by raising levels of brain chemicals that promote new brain cell formation and new neural connections. (8)
Exercise especially increases the number of brain cells in the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for learning and memory. (9)
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Two hours of walking per week was shown to increase hippocampus volume by 2%. (10)
Exercise Increases Your Resilience to Stress
Chronic stress is a disaster for your brain.
The stress hormone cortisol kills existing brain cells and halts the production of new ones. (13)
It negatively impacts every cognitive function. (16)
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But exercise can overcome the impact of chronic stress on your brain. (20)
It decreases cortisol release and improves your reaction to stress.
It actually reorganizes the brain so that it responds better to stress. (21)
Amazingly, the exercise you do today can protect you from anxiety and depression for up to five years, even if you stop exercising. (22)
But with all of these impressive benefits, why would you want to stop?
Exercise Makes You Happy
Serotonin plays a large role in mood.
Low serotonin is widely believed to be responsible for depression.
Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) such as Prozac and Zoloft relieve symptoms of depression by increasing brain levels of serotonin.
But SSRIs can have serious side effects and they don’t work for 40% of those who try them. (25)
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Exercise has been found to work better for depression than the SSRI drug Zoloft, and with no side effects. (26)
Dr. John Ratey, Harvard Medical School psychiatrist and author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, has extensively studied physical exercise and its impact on the brain.
He found that exercise raises baseline levels of dopamine by promoting the growth of new brain cell receptors.
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Exercise also boosts your levels of endorphins.
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You don’t have to be a runner.
Any form of long duration, rhythmic exercise can get you into this state. (29)
Exercise Alleviates Symptoms of Brain Disorders
It’s been repeatedly shown that exercise relieves symptoms of a wide range of brain disorders including ADHD, anxiety disorders, depression, schizophrenia, and post traumatic stress disorder. (30, 31, 32)
Furthermore, physical exercise can protect your brain against aging, age-related cognitive decline, and degenerative diseases, including Alzheimer’s and dementia. (33)
One way it does this is by protecting your telomeres.
Telomeres are protective end caps on your chromosomes, similar to the plastic tips on shoelaces.
Telomere length is thought to be the best indicator of biological aging — even better than medical diagnostic tools. (34)
Shortened telomeres lead to atrophy of brain cells, while longer telomeres lead to the production of new brain cells. (35)
Exercise for Your Brain: What Kind? How Much?
It’s crystal clear that exercise is one of the best things you can do for brain health and function.
But what kind of exercise gives the most brain benefits? And how much should you do?
Dr. Ratey believes that sprint bursts will have you feeling mentally brighter for the rest of the day. (36)
Here’s the pattern he recommends:
- Run, bike, or swim as fast as you can for 30 to 40 seconds.
- Reduce your speed to a gentle pace for the next five minutes.
- Sprint again.
- Repeat four times for a total of five sprints.
Walking is generally considered one of the best all-around exercises.
It’s no coincidence that people often take a walk to think better or clear their mind. (37)
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Ancient no-impact practices like yoga, tai chi, and qi gong provide significant mind-body benefits.
Tai chi and qi gong give your brain a surprisingly good workout.
You can get more of a brain boost from your workout by exercising outdoors.
Compared with indoor exercise, it increases vitality, enthusiasm, pleasure, and self-esteem while lowering tension, depression, and fatigue. (41)
Spending time in nature improves memory recall and attention span. (42)
That may be one of the reasons gardening is one of the best overall exercises for both the body and the brain. (43)
Gardeners have significantly lower risk of dementia than non-gardeners. (44)
The American Heart Association and The American College of Sports Medicine recommend healthy adults do one of the following activities: (45)
- Moderate level of walking, swimming, running, or biking for 30 minutes, five days a week. OR
- Intense level of walking, swimming, running, or biking for 20 minutes, three days a week.
They also recommend doing some strength training two days per week.
As you can see, there is no single right way to exercise.
Since your brain thrives on variety, Dr. Ratey recommends varying your exercise routine for the most benefit. (46)
There is no doubt that the very best type of physical exercise is the one that you actually do.
So find something you enjoy so you’ll stick with it.
Physical Exercise and the Brain: The Bottom Line
Physical exercise does more than keep your body fit, it’s essential for your brain as well.
Exercise nourishes, protects, and strengthens your brain so you’ll feel happier, be more resilient to stress, and have better memory and focus.
Developing the habit of daily exercise may be the best thing you can do to keep your brain healthy, fit, and fully functional for a lifetime.