How Exercise Affects Your Brain

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November 2, 2020

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Your workouts do more than just strengthen your muscles — exercise improves the health of your whole body, including your brain.

Your brain is the central control system that keeps your body working as it should. Similar to the muscles, organs, tissue and systems that make up your body, your brain is affected by the hormones and other chemicals released when you exercise.

Find out exactly how exercise affects your brain, the benefits and some of the best types of exercises you can do when caring for your body through an active lifestyle and good nutrition.

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How does exercise affect brain health?

After a workout, your ability to learn improves, your mind will function more efficiently, and your brain is better able to protect itself from inflammatory factors found in the bloodstream. 

This all happens when exercise causes your heart rate to increase and stimulates the release of certain hormones throughout the body. Higher blood flow allows more molecules to be exchanged at the blood-brain barrier — a special layer of cells that protects the delicate chemistry of your brain from certain kinds of molecules that circulate in your bloodstream. 

Higher blood flow means that more nutrients and growth-promoting hormones are available for the brain to use in its function and development. 

A 2019 narrative review by the Medical University of Gdansk in Poland, published in the Journal of Neuroinflammation observed that there is evidence that exercise helps to strengthen the blood-brain barrier, further protecting your brain from inflammation.

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Benefits of exercise for the brain

Here are just a few of the benefits your brain will experience when you exercise regularly:

Exercise reduces the effects of stress

Exercise is a powerful tool you can use to beat the effects of stress, and reducing stress is important for brain health. Chronic stress affects hormones like cortisol — molecules produced by the body in response to stress which can impact brain function. 

Chronic stress or burnout has been linked to shortened attention spans, errors in inhibition and memory failures by a 2007 study by Erasmus University in the Netherlands on work stress, published in An International Journal of Work, Health & Organisations. Reducing stress through exercise can help to alleviate these symptoms for better cognitive function. 

While exercise is recommended for stress relief, a 2013 study by Delaware University in the US, published in ACSM’s Health & Fitness Journal, recommends that you should also seek advice from healthcare professionals to help to manage chronic and acute stress. 

Exercise can improve mood

A 2020 literature review by the Shanghai University of Sport in China and published in CNS Neuroscience & Therapeutics observed that increasing exercise may correlate with a lower risk of depression symptoms. Exercise, including cardio, strength training and mind-body practices like yoga, helped to reshape the brain structure of patients and improve symptoms. 

More research is needed to establish a prescription for how much and what type of exercise is most effective to reap these benefits, however, exercising at a moderate intensity just once a week will provide benefits. 

Exercise can improve cognition

Exercise can help to improve learning ability. A 2008 review by the National Institutes of Health in the US, published in Neuromolecular Medicine, suggests that this positive correlation may be linked to the increase in neuron growth observed with physical activity, particularly in the hippocampus, an area of the brain that helps to facilitate learning. 

This review observed that young adults who are more aerobically fit tend to require a lower effort — they can pay less attention and respond faster — to complete a cognitive challenge. 

Exercise can improve decision-making capabilities

A 2008 multi-disciplinary literature review by the University of Illinois in the US, published in Nature Reviews Neuroscience, detailed emerging evidence that physical activity can have a positive effect on cognition and brain function at the molecular, cellular, system and behavioural levels. 

Using imaging, researchers have found that changes occur within several areas of the brain during exercise that helps to promote a greater level of efficiency and executive control. When you exercise, your ability to time your movements and make decisions about when to take action improves.

Exercise can reduce symptoms of ageing in the brain

As you age, your brain tends to lose some of its acuity as fewer neural connections are made, metabolism slows and circulation becomes poorer.

Exercise can help to prevent or reverse some of these effects, in part by reducing other risk factors that contribute to impaired brain function, such as cardiovascular disease or type II diabetes. 

A 2007 review by the University of California in the US, published in Trends in Neurosciences, showed that regulating the production of growth factors in the body using exercise can help to ensure successful brain function. 

Exercise promotes gut health

Your body is made up of cells and many other microorganisms, known as the “microbiome”. These are especially prevalent in the gut — there are “good” bacteria that assist with digestion and harmful bacteria that can cause disease, so keeping the right balance is important. 

The diversity of healthy bacteria in your gut also plays a role in your psychological wellbeing — and you can help to facilitate this biodiversity with regular exercise.  

The gut is connected directly to the brain via a large nerve called the “vagus nerve”, an important communication pathway that enables the whole body to work together. Changing the biodiversity of the gut can influence the communication between the gut and the brain. 

A 2019 literature review, by the University of New Mexico in the US and published in Gut Microbes, suggests that exercise improves the diversity and abundance of the bacteria in your gut. This can have a positive impact on your overall wellbeing, in particular your mood and psychological health. A healthy gut also plays a role in ensuring neurogenesis — the growth of new neural connections in the brain.

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Which type of exercise is best for your brain?

The most beneficial type of exercise is the one that you enjoy doing and can do consistently over time. 

Most of the research considers cardio, however, all types of exercise have benefits for the brain. Whether you need a HIIT workout to save time, or you prefer a leisurely walk, there will be a style of exercise that works for you. 

Emerging research from a 2013 randomised controlled trial by the Virginia Commonwealth University in the US found that practising yoga once each week may have long-term beneficial effects on mood in women experiencing symptoms of depression, and may help to reduce negative self-talk. Incorporating yoga is a low-impact introduction to fitness if you are a fitness beginner, and you can get started with just a mat or towel. 

For women, in particular, a 2018 review from the University of British Columbia, Canada, published in Brain Plasticity, found that six months of twice-weekly strength training improved associative memory, cognition and executive function. This correlates with positive changes observed in the physical structure of the brain. 

Whether you choose to practice yoga, lift weights or run, you’ll find that exercise will help to improve and maintain your ability to think clearly, make decisions, learn new information and perform intellectual challenges. 

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Fitness can benefit your brain — and so much more

Scientists are still yet to learn about the extent that our body and mind work together — but one thing that is clear is that exercise is a key element to a healthy lifestyle

There’s no perfect time to start, so why wait to experience these benefits for yourself? 

You’ll find a range of different fitness programs in the Sweat app, or you can explore free workouts from the Sweat Trainers to find a style that suits you best.

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A more empowered you starts with Sweat, and our editorial team is here to bring you the latest fitness tips, trainer recommendations, wellbeing news, nutritional advice, nourishing recipes and free workouts.

* Disclaimer: This blog post is not intended to replace the advice of a medical professional. The above information should not be used to diagnose, treat, or prevent any disease or medical condition. Please consult your doctor before making any changes to your diet, sleep methods, daily activity, or fitness routine. Sweat assumes no responsibility for any personal injury or damage sustained by any recommendations, opinions, or advice given in this article.


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