Most people hit the gym for aesthetic reasons: They want to lose body fat, improve muscle, or just get all-around more svelte. As great as working out is for your body composition, it’s just as good for your brain. What follows are ten of the most exciting ways exercise improves brain function.
#1: Improve Learning
Exercise leads to the release of a “brain health” protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) that acts in the part of the brain involved in learning and memory. Greater BDNF promotes the development of new nerves and synapses, which leads to better recall, increased spatial memory function, and enhanced learning.
#2: Improve Mood
Anyone who has powered through a killer interval workout knows that intense exercise makes you feel like you can take on the world. Due to an increase in release of the POMC neurotransmitters (best known as beta endorphins), exercise has a feel-good effect on the brain with what is known as a “runner’s high.”
#3: Lower Stress
We all know that chronic stress is a major bummer for the brain. It’s exhausting, makes us depressed, impairs sleep, increases anxiety, and depletes our mental reserves. In many cases, exercise is the perfect solution, helping to reset the HPA axis that connects the brain with the adrenals that produce the stress hormone cortisol. The increase in beta endorphins with exercise also help, triggering a drop in cortisol and having an anti-depressant effect.
#4: Reduce Depression
Besides bathing your brain in feel-good endorphins, exercise is a potent treatment for depression. Studies suggest exercise can alter brain chemistry, lowering stress and increasing synthesis of mood-raising neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine. Exercise also leads to the development of new neurons, which improves how serotonin and other good-mood chemicals act in the brain.
#5: Lower Anxiety
Feelings of nervousness, apprehension, and worry can be terribly debilitating if they haunt your days. All forms of exercise can lower anxiety by improving brain chemistry and self-esteem. Interestingly, strength training may be especially effective because it is a structured activity that pulls you into the moment, allowing you to observe your progress as you get stronger and more powerful.
#6: Improve Memory
Some of the most interesting research on exercise and the brain reveals that the combination of increased blood flow to the brain and release of brain transmitters improves memory. Exercise also stimulates the growth of brand new neurons that improve retention of new information.
#7: Reduce Cognitive Decline & Dementia
Studies show exercise can counteract the cognitive decline that accompanies aging and reduce risk of full-blown dementia by lowering inflammation and insulin resistance in the brain. Exercise improves the brain’s ability to use glucose and bind with insulin, while leading to less deposition of plaque in the brain that accumulates and impairs cognition over time.
#8: Reduce Risk of Brain Disorders
If you’ve studied exercise science, you know that improvements in the brain-to-muscle connection are a central reason exercise makes us stronger and faster. These adaptations also have a protective effect on the brain, reducing risk and severity of brain disorders including Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and ALS. Both aerobic and strength training will lower risk of brain disorders, however, the brain benefits of each type of exercise are unique so it’s recommended that you include both in your routine.
#9: Decrease Sensations of Pain
Pain is a subjective experience and the good news is that exercise can change how we experience it. Besides improving our tolerance of pain so that it is less debilitating, certain forms of exercise such as strength training enhance physical function and lower inflammation in joints and connective tissue. For example, strength training may be the best form of exercise to treat chronic low back pain, osteoarthritis, and fibromyalgia.
#10: Improve Mental Efficiency
Exercise triggers acute (increased blood flow, release of brain transmitters involved in memory and recall) and chronic (growth of new neurons and blood vessels, increased insulin sensitivity) adaptations that make your brain more efficient. Additionally, exercise increases plasticity, which is basically the brain’s ability to grow and adapt. The net effect is enhanced cognitive function and a better mental outlook.