Perhaps you have a rough idea about how exercise affects your health, weight, and energy levels. But do you know about its impact on the brain?
The neurological benefits are clear and significant.
In this article, we will be taking a 360° view on the context, the facts, the research and the benefits connecting the brain, health, and physical activity.
This discussion will be supplemented with advice and detailed specific exercises, as well as details of their health effects.
We will also elaborate on how to make exercise feel more meaningful and poetic with our bodies.
Before you read on, we thought you might like to download our 3 Positive Psychology Exercises for free. These science-based exercises will explore fundamental aspects of positive psychology including strengths, values, and self-compassion, and will give you the tools to enhance the wellbeing of your clients, students, or employees.
You can download the free PDF here.
This Article Contains:
- How Does Exercise Affect the Brain?
- 10 Neurological Benefits of Exercise
- 5 Interesting Facts about the Brain
- A Look at the Research and Science
- How Exercise Reprograms the Brain
- Exercise, Cognition and the Aging Brain
- What Does it Do for Memory?
- How Does it Improve Concentration and Remove Brain Fog?
- What Can Physical Activity Do For Neurological Problems?
- Blood Circulation and Cognitive Functioning
- The Role of Nutrition and Exercise
- What are the Best Exercises We Can Engage in to Build Brain Health?
- How Much and How Often is it Recommended?
- How to Exercise like a Poet
- A Take-Home Message
Industrialization brought revolutionary technological innovations like trains, cars, and airplanes, which made our lives easier.
In the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution, technology also experienced a major shift in the UK and much of Western Europe. According to Watson, Weir and Friend (2005), technology:
“brought about a leisure revolution within the working-class population and played a major role in focusing the Victorian psyche on health.”
Technology quickened the production lines and output of goods and decreased the number of active jobs for a rising middle class. With the automation of industry, a more sedentary lifestyle arose, along with a rapid increase in cardiovascular and respiratory diseases.
The rise of blue- and white-collar jobs in factories also replaced small-scale farming and traditional labor-intensive work. Meanwhile, populations moved into urbanized centers by the thousands into smaller residences near one another, with proximity to their work.
Markets and supermarkets also made food accessible to people who could no longer afford to raise cattle and produce their own food.
The way people spend their leisure time also changed when television became America’s favorite pastime (Krantz-Kent, 2018), with people consuming around 4 and 5 hours of daily screentime (Shaw, 2004).
All of this meant that in today’s developed regions, the standard of living dramatically increased. Without physical effort, one could survive and even earn money, have fun, and eat well.
For many people’s income, everything can be done from their couch, or with little physical effort. This includes paying the bills, buying clothing and groceries, enjoying vacation days, and catching up with friends.
With the rise of freelance work and global nomadism, people could remain inactive and even earn a decent wage and the opportunity to travel.
It is important to acknowledge that not everyone has the opportunity to work non-physical jobs in a safe home environment. Physical inactivity is not a reality many workers around the world face. Regardless, we are moving towards a city-dwelling, exercise-low society.
According to the World Health Organization (2010), more than 50% of the world population lives in an urban area today.
Given the current demographic exponential growth worldwide, it is predicted that by 2050, around 70% of the global population will be living in cities. What does this mean for global health? Widespread physical inactivity is cause for concern.
Jonathan Shaw (2004) writes that 75% of the United States populations fails even to meet the minimum government recommendation for exercise, that is, 30 minutes walking every day.
Even this statistic radically differs from the habits of our hunter-gatherer ancestors 10,000 years ago, who walked at least 10-20 kilometers every day (Wrangham in Shaw, 2004).
Despite this, deep in the psyche:
“America loves to think of itself as a youthful nation focused on fitness, but behind the vivid media images of robust runners, Olympic Dream Teams, and rugged mountain bikers is the troubling reality of a generation of young people that is, in large measure, inactive, unfit, and increasingly overweight”
This ingrained mindset traces back to Western traditions of athleticism.
Ancient Greece glorified the body with sporting rituals and competition, so much so that the Olympic Games, held in honor of Zeus, could take place (Ratey, 2015).
Before then, there was no such thing as marathons or sport-oriented societies. The “survival of the fittest” prevailed as a foundation of human evolution (Ratey, 2015).
In other words, you were either fit or, you died. Western cultures have vacillated between extremes, to have shifted from “fitness-for-survival,” to “fitness-for-entertainment” to “fitness as a privilege.”
So how do we start thinking about more realistic and accessible ways to incorporate physical effort into our lives?
We are not genetically programmed to live in a state of idleness and lethargy. And if we do, our brains pay a high price, both in the short and long term.
You may know already, that exercise is good for you, but do you know how it affects the brain?
The research is fascinating.
How Does Exercise Affect the Brain?
People exercise for different reasons, but many people stay fit to prevent serious health conditions. These conditions include heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and stroke (Godman, 2014).
Other people work out primarily to lose weight. Only a few people exercise with the intent to improve their brain functioning.
Do you think about neurology when you hit the gym? You might after reading this.
Exercise improves cognitive functioning, mental health, and memory; it also hinders the development of certain neurological conditions.
In an article entitled Exercise is Brain Food (2008), Ploughman presents the three dominant neuroscientific theories that explain how physical activity positively impacts cognition.
- While exercising, oxygen saturation and angiogenesis (blood vessel growth) occur in areas of the brain associated with rational thinking and as well as social, physical and intellectual performance.
- Exercise drops stress hormones and increases the number of neurotransmitters like serotonin and norepinephrine, which are known to accelerate information processing.
- Exercise upregulates neurotrophins (brain-derived neurotrophic factor, insulin-like growth factor, and basic fibroblast growth factor). These support the survival and differentiation of neurons in the developing brain, dendritic branching, and synaptic machinery in the adult brain (ibid).
Now it gets technical. We have several videos to help explain these three theories as to how exercise influences brain chemistry.
For more detail on how brain-derived neurotrophic factor (or BDNF, also labeled by John Ratey, author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain (2008) as “Miracle Grow for the Brain”) works, have a look at the following short video:
On insulin-like growth (IGF1):
On the basic fibroblast growth factor (bFGF):
Arguably, the reason why the three theorems differ is that they describe different phenomena through a different lens that occurs simultaneously in the brain during exercise.
Regardless of their respective stances, the described outcome at the neurological level is positive.
Any associated function of the brain you can think of, exercise can either improve, optimize specific functions, or prevent undesirable health conditions.
What are these specific benefits?
10 Neurological Benefits of Exercise
We’ve gleaned the takeaway points of each section that we will be delving into as the article unfolds, regarding the neurological benefits that come from physical activity.
- Decreased stress
- Decreased social anxiety
- Improved processing of emotions
- Prevention of neurological conditions
- Euphoria (short-term)
- Increased energy, focus and attention
- Hinderance to the aging process
- Improved memory
- Improved blood circulation
- Decreased ‘brain fog’
All of these benefits are connected to neurogenesis (the generation and creation of new neurons) and neuroplasticity (synaptic plasticity, or alterations to the strength of already existing synapses).
Many of these benefits are derived from the ability to reduce insulin resistance and inflammation (Godman, 2014).
We have a lot of myths surrounding how our brains work, as well as a lot of pending research. Perhaps we should explore some of the facts, before returning to how exercise benefits the brain.
5 Interesting Facts about the Brain
The following list debunks common misconceptions about the brain and the role of exercise. As one of the least understood organs of the body, this three-pound mystery has kept scientists busy.
Let’s begin with some facts.
Fact No. 1: Brain Degeneration is a Myth
For a long time, scientists thought that cognitive aptitudes like our wits and memory—also known as fluid intelligence—peak around twenty years of age, then slowly decline.
Recent research conducted by MIT neuroscientists (Trafton, 2015) has found that it is more complicated than that.
It is not that our cognitive processes get better or worse over time, it is that they alter. This means that at different ages, we are more apt at certain things than at others.
It has been shown that:
- Information processing peaks around the age of 18 and 19
- Short-term memory peaks around 25 and declines around 35
- Visual short-term memory peaks in the early 30s
- The ability to read another person’s emotion peaks around the 40s and 50s
- Vocabulary peaks in the late 60s or early 70s
Fact No. 2: Exercise Increases the Size of Your Brain
Exercising enlarges the areas of the brain associated with memory, task management, coordination, planning and inhibition (the anterior cingulate cortex and the supplementary motor area).
This enlargement means that the developed parts of the brain function faster and more efficiently. When you exercise, oxygen flow to these parts of the brain is very helpful.
In a ‘new age of obesity’ (Monbiot, 2018), more studies are also covering the impact of exercise on the brain as well as overall health (Ravey, 2015). The stigma of obesity is a complicated topic, but relevant to this exploration of exercise and access to healthy lifestyles.
For now, suffice to say that exercise increases the size of the brain and reduces the rates of obesity.
Fact No. 3: Anxiety Damages the Brain
Anxiety is harmful to the brain, but how? Evidence exists that individuals who experience anxiety are 48% more likely to develop dementia.
This is due to cortisol, the stress hormone, which damages parts of the brain involved in memory and complex thinking.
Working towards minimizing your stress, or viewing certain stress as positive, can benefit your brain health. An article I wrote on eustress explains more how your beliefs about stress affect whether it will be harmful or beneficial.
If you suffer from high stress or anxiety over the very idea of stress, there is still hope for you. Exercise may need a shifting role in your life, which we will explore later in this article.
Fact No. 4: Working for Too Long is Counterproductive
Every 1.5 to 2 hours, the brain goes through stages of performance and productivity. In the first stage, cognition can work at a remarkable pace, thanks to the release of sodium and potassium ions that regenerate the brain’s electrical signals.
If a person continues to work on the same task, it is likely that they will experience decreased focus low productivity. This is because to continue working at the same pace, the brain needs new ions to ‘refuel,’ similar to how a long-distance athlete needs fuel between workouts.
Taking a short break of twenty minutes every 1-2 hours, whether the break is a walk, exercise or socializing, can stimulate the brain and return it to the first stage of optimal productivity.
I tried to apply this while writing this article, and it worked wonders. I always came back to my writing desk inspired by new ideas.
Some people want workplaces to be more fit places where all employees have alternatives to sitting all day” (Carroll, 2018).
Imagine a work culture where organizations encouraged short, frequent, and active breaks.
Fact No. 5: Your Brain Shape Gauges Your Personality Type
Recent research conducted by Mitchell and Kumari (2016) argues that the shape of a person’s brain can give indicators on their personality predispositions and the extent that they risk suffering from certain mental illnesses.
The ‘stretching and folding’ triggered by alterations in cortisol levels can indicate whether a person is more likely prone to neuroticism, extraversion, openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness.
For instance, an increase in the thickness, the reduction of the surface area, and a lack of folding in the cortices have been associated with higher neuroticism levels.
If they exacerbate, these levels can develop into more serious neuro-psychiatric conditions.
On the other hand, prefrontal cortical thinness, an increase of surface area, and increased folding are predictors of an increased level of openness.
Our brain health should be one of our top priorities if we strive for wholesome and happy lives. What better way to show your brain some love than to feed it oxygen via exercise.
Let’s see what the research and science show.
A Look at the Research and Science
Our brains grow new nerve cells, all the time, and would benefit from daily stimulation (Steljes et al., 1999). Before this discovery, most of the scientific community believed the brain was incapable of generating new neurons (Ploughman, 2008).
Steljes study showed that the generation of new neurons by stem cells—a process called neurogenesis—occurs in the hippocampus and in the cell layers around the subventricular zone of the brain.
When a person exercises, their brains are exposed to external stimulants that facilitate neurogenesis.
According to Ratey (2015):
“…activities such as learning, meditation, enjoying, laughing, being with someone, increase the number of new stem cells that we change into new nerve cells but nothing, does it like exercise.”
Here is Ratey’s full talk on optimizing your brain power via exercise:
A Look at How Exercise Reprograms the Brain
As we have seen, the brain is capable of producing new neurons. This is in part because of its neuroplasticity – its ability to continuously regenerate itself.
When a person learns a new skill, interconnected neural circuits form and connect with each other through different points of contact (the synapses).
Over time, if the person persists in the learning of that skill, the synaptic communication between the neurons will be strengthened.
Kolb & Gibb (2010) write how “a better connection between the neurons means that the electric signals travel more efficiently when creating or using a new pathway. For example, when trying to recognize a new bird, new connections are made among specific neurons.”
A study conducted by Schoenfeld et al. (2013) articulates how exercise promotes the growth of neurons in the ventral hippocampus, so people who exercise tend to be able to handle stress better.
What is the hippocampus, exactly? The hippocampus is a deep part of the brain responsible for learning and memory, and it seems to be activated during physical activity.
A hippocampus of a person who lives a sedentary lifestyle consists of younger neurons. We can think of these as neurons as ‘untrained.’ Younger neurons, are by nature, easily excitable, and ‘fire’ easily when confronted with a minor stressor.
This, in turn, can make situations, decisions and even thoughts appear more stressful, and make us feel more anxious than they should.
How do we resolve this? Exercise is part of the equation, to strengthen healthy neural connections in the hippocampus.
The excitability of neurons evolved from the basic fight-or-flight response we all have.
For example, how would your brain respond if you were walking and encountered a grizzly bear? The flood of hormones and neurotransmitters would prepare your body to flee from the grizzly or fight it.
This response enables us to decide whether we should physically engage in a situation or escape from a perceived threat.
When no concrete threat is present, this response can be detrimental to one’s ability to live a balanced life: the unleashing of neurotransmitters in the hippocampus affects rational thinking and emotional well-being, which can be exhausting.
During physical activity, the same flight-or-fight system is activated; this creates the same preconditions that overwhelm the hippocampus.
Why is exercise good for the hippocampus if it still floods the system with a neurological cocktail?
The difference is that the neural growth that develops during exercise involves the growth of specific neurons that release GABA neurotransmitters, also nicknamed by Bergland 2002 as the “anti-anxiety molecule.”
These GABA neurotransmitters prevent other neurons from firing so easily. In other words, they help your brain understand real threats from excessive neuron firing.
In Schoenfeld et al.’s study, it was found that a majority of neural creation is located in the ventral part of the hippocampus, which is associated with emotional processing.
This means that those who frequently exercised were more equipped to manage stress and control their emotions better.
Exercise, as a habitual practice, enables reprogramming of the brain.
As Gould concludes, the hippocampus of active people is—simply put—better equipped to handle stressors.
Here’s what the neural development before and after months of exercise looks like:
- Image one: Neural networks before training
- Image two: Two weeks after stimulation
- Image three: Two months after stimulation
We have covered how exercise impacts our processing of stressors and emotions.
But there more “brain benefits” to exercise, with tangible impacts on well-being and cognition.
Exercise, Cognition and the Aging Brain
Exercising immediately increases the level of dopamine, serotonin and noradrenaline neurotransmitters. The transposition of the three together results in hyperstimulation of the mind, which results in an increased focus of attention and reaction time, for at least two hours.
The Brain-changing Benefits of Exercise | Wendy Suzuki
Wendy Suzuki is a neuroscientist at New York University, and also a leading global expert on neuroplasticity. Her book “Healthy Brain, Happy Life” examines the connection between brain health and overall health.
In the following TedTalk, Sukuzi provides an entertaining account of the neuroscience behind exercise. Even a single workout can have cathartic effects on your brain and cognition.
If you scrolled past her TedTalk, consider watching it—Suzuki is passionate about teaching about the benefits of exercise and she will even get you moving as part of her talk.
If you are curious about the psychological states influenced by the three main neurotransmitters after exercise, the following graph may help explain how they interact:
Dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin are like the three musketeers of brain messengers.
Have you ever experienced a ‘feel-good’ sensation immediately after exercise? If so, you may have experienced the phenomenon known as the ‘runner’s high.’ It is a temporary euphoric state that typically involves elated, contented feelings and a general sense of well-being.
The flood of these neurotransmitters feels incredible, and is worth the temporary drudgery of “working out.”
If a person exercises regularly, these ‘runner’s high’ might last even longer.
But the most important aspect of exercise, Suzuki argues, is its protective effect on the brain.
“Think of your brain as a muscle,” she begins, in her TedTalk, explaining that:
“The more you’re working out, the bigger and stronger your hippocampus and prefrontal cortex gets. This is important because the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus are the two areas that are most susceptible to neurogenerative diseases and normal cognitive decline in aging.”
Exercise does not prevent neurological illnesses like dementia or Alzheimer’s, which are conditions that impact memory, behavior and daily functioning.
Over time, consistent exercise will strengthen and enlarge the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex, shielding against degenerative conditions.
This strengthening improves cognitive function and enables people to thrive with the activities of daily living (ADL).
One of the biggest fears with aging is the prospect of mind and body deterioration, and not being able to function in daily living.
While relative deterioration is natural, our lifestyle choices do play a role in the aging process, by either accelerating it or slowing it down.
Research conducted by Puterman et al. (2010) has shown that telomeres—the structures at the end of chromosomes—shrink as we age.
This shrinking causes veins to deteriorate, and also triggers conditions like heart disease, stroke, and vascular aging.
People who exercise regularly have longer telomeres because keeping one’s heart rate up has long-term benefits on the body, including the slowing of aging.
The effects of exercise on mood and preventative actions for health are clear. Yet we have yet to unwrap how memory changes with exercise.
Take a moment to stretch or move your body. Then, continue learning just how impactful exercise is for your ability to recall and retain information.
What Does it Do for Memory?
According to many scientific studies, exercise improves learning and memory abilities.
Preston and Eichenbaum (2013) highlight the interplay between the pre-frontal cortex and the hippocampus in fortifying memory-related cognition.
How would the brain function without the hippocampus? If the role of the hippocampus is to ‘record’ and ‘replay’ memories, would a life without it be possible?
If you’re curious about the role of the hippocampus in memory, watch this TedTalk by Sam Kean as he explains a medical case that will make you think.
This video is based on the real story of a boy, H.M., who had his hippocampus removed in 1953. To understand exactly what the hippocampus does, let’s begin by imagining a life without it.
Assuming you do have a hippocampus, what happens to this part of your brain when you exercise?
A ground-breaking study conducted by Erikson et al. (2013) showed, in a randomized trial with 120 adults, that the increase in the size of the anterior hippocampus of 2% (provoked by aerobic training), improved the spatial memory of the participants.
This means that exercise increases the ability of people to recall information. In neuroscience and psychology, spatial memory refers to a type of memory that involves spatial orientation, the recalling of the location of objects, and where specific events unfolded.
Coles and Tomporowski (2008) also document how exercise consolidates information into long-term memory in the brain. If you think that only regular and persistent exercise will impact brain health and memory, you are wrong. The good news is that the gap to ‘better brain health’ is not as drastic as you may think.
A study carried out by Roig et al. (2012) showed how one intense single workout session—either performed immediately after or before forming a motor skillset—could improve the long-term retention of a motor skill.
This led the authors to conclude that the timing of exercise, in relation to learning, plays an essential role in the memorization process.
Are you feeling inspired? Hang on a bit more before going on that hike. It’s not over.
How Does Exercise Improve Concentration and Remove Brain Fog?
Brain fog, also known as ‘clouding of consciousness’ is when people experience a degree of cognitive impairment. Symptoms may include poor focus, lack of concentration, and difficulty remembering things.
It can last minutes to decades, depending on the cause.
Doctor Aviva Romm (2017) outlines ten different possible causes that may lie at the root of cloudy thinking or brain fog:
- Stress, overwhelm, and distraction
- Blood sugar imbalances
- Depression and anxiety
- Gut microbiome disruption
- Nutritional deficiencies
- Hormonal shifts
- Thyroid and adrenal imbalances
- Side-effects of medication
The reason why it may happen is wide and varied. It is unlikely that exercising alone will remove brain fog entirely.
But because physical activity improves memory and learning, it also activates different parts of the brain and enables the release of the BDNF chemical and norepinephrine neurotransmitters; these increase alertness, concentration, and energy.
By taking walks regularly or exercising at a higher intensity, you are nurturing a healthier brain.
What Can Physical Activity Do For Neurological Problems?
In 2013, the fifth edition of the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the ‘psychiatric bible’) was published. In this manual, hundreds of psychological disorders are described, to help identify and alleviate a person’s psychological struggle.
Historically, the manual has received criticism: what if ‘disorders’ are just different expressions of the range of emotions and psychological states of human nature?
The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) also criticized how the manual tends to define disorders based on symptoms, not scientific data.
In the last decades, there seems to have been a surge in diagnosable illnesses: the Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey (APMS) conducted in 2014 revealed that each week in the UK, 1 in 6 adults experiences a common mental health problem, such as anxiety and depression.
The survey also indicated that 1 in 5 adults has contemplated committing suicide during their lifetime. Meanwhile, profits of big pharma companies have gone through the roof, competing with the profits of great banks (Anderson, 2014).
While some people really do need medicinal help with mental disorders, other people might be suffering from their disorder and the manipulation of pharma companies profiting from their medicalized status.
Currently, much biological depression is eased by antidepressants, anxiety by benzodiazepines, ADHD by amphetamines, insomnia by benzodiazepines, and a range of other psychoactive drugs (Berezin, 2015).
Berezin offers a fresh look: neurological imbalances need more assistance than these drugs offer. To him, these are human issues.
How can the field of psychology treat a human issue? It is not a simple answer, but it can begin by considering the human story where meaning, purpose, and suffering connect.
Psychotherapy is not always enough. It may feel cathartic to discuss raw emotions and patterns with a licensed therapist, but the body needs to heal alongside the mind.
Thus, exercise again plays a vital role in healing certain states of suffering.
Cooney et al. (2013) for instance, famously argued that the neurological benefits of exercise are more effective in managing depressive symptoms than psychoactive treatments.
The study was limited to a few small trials, but they consistently indicated that exercise was the best treatment for patients experiencing depression—and without the common side effects of antidepressants.
Another study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry (Harvey et al., 2018), monitored 33,908 Norwegian adults for 11 years; the results confirmed that just one hour of exercise a week could mitigate depression.
From what this article explains about the brain so far, you may be able to fathom how exercise changes the neural plasticity of the brain.
With increased neural plasticity, the brain can recover after disorders and injuries, and thereby reduce the effects of devastating neurological illnesses such as Multiple Sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, cognitive deterioration, Alzheimer’s, dyslexia, ADHD, insomnia.
Blood Circulation and Cognitive Functioning
Blood circulation—which continuously transports nutrients to the brain, skin and vital organs—is also critical to brain and body health. When you exercise, you help circulate blood throughout your body.
Varicose veins, kidney disease, and stroke are all related to limited blood circulation. Research confirms that blood viscosity shows a correlation with age-related cognitive impairment, and conditions such as dementia (Schwarb et al., 2017).
In the brain of a healthy and active person, the hippocampus is firm and flexible, characteristics which are the direct outcomes of regular exercise.
When there is a decrease in blood flow, the hippocampus cannot perform key functions, such as storing and recalling information.
A study conducted by epidemiologists in Sweden (Abert et al., 2019) studied 1.2 million boys born in 1950 and tested the cardio (ergonometric) of the participants twice.
The first time the boys were tested was when the students finished compulsory school at age 16; the second time was when they were about to enter the military at age 18.
The study aimed to examine the correlation between physical activity and cognitive performance, as well as the specific interactions of cardiovascular fitness and muscular strength on cognitive performance.
Conclusions were astounding.
The young men who sustained their aerobic practice in their high-school years increased their IQ and cognitive performance on tests. Many later studies reviewing young athletes in school, find hopeful correlations between certain sports and positive academic performance.
You do not have to be a professional student-athlete to reap the brain and circulatory benefits of fitness.
Even people who engage in mild forms of exercise, like gardening, are 50% less likely to suffer from age-related neurological conditions (HeadSqueeze, 2014).
If intense exercise is not your personal gateway to health, perhaps mild exercise can bring your brain a breath of the oxygen-rich air.
The Role of Nutrition
If you have decided to start exercising because you want to be healthier, that’s great. But you are more likely to achieve long-term results if you combine activity with a balanced diet.
What you eat also has neurological impacts on your brain. Zeeni et al. (2017) found that specific diets, combined with exercise, increased BDNF signaling.
Abby King, a researcher from Stanford University, conducted a study lasting 12 months that involved 200 people whose diets and physical conditions were substandard to health recommendations (DeNoon, 2013).
For King’s study:
- Participants were divided into groups, and each group was given counseling sessions on exercise and nutrition over a certain period;
- One group prioritized diet and was given four months of nutrition counseling, which followed with nutrition and exercise counseling for eight months;
- The second group prioritized exercise and began the study with four months of exercise counseling, which followed with combined counseling (with nutrition) for the eight months that followed;
- The third group was given exercise and nutrition counseling—simultaneously—for the total duration of the study.
The two first groups managed to fulfill their priority goals, nutrition being for the first groups’ focus and exercise being the second groups’ focus.
But the only group that was successful long-term was the group using a combined nutrition and exercise approach to overall health.
The original objective was to get participants to exercise up to 150 minutes per week, with 5-9 daily servings of fruits and vegetables, as well as a lower intake of saturated fats.
It may sound intimidating to consider nutrition, with the focus of diet-culture embedded in the Western psyche. But in general, maybe there is a simpler plan: make little changes to your life, routine, and commitment to brain health; the body may see results of increased fitness too.
Chances are, that once you start exercising more frequently, you may feel healthier and actually have more energy—not less.
In that sense, nutrition and exercise can have a synergistic effect in shaping positive psychological outcomes and an overall sense of well-being.
The Best Exercises to Build Brain Health?
According to the European Heart Journal “Not all exercises are created equal” (Gadd, 2018).
This means that not all exercises have the same beneficial health outcomes.
Each exercise activates a different part of the body and brain, so there is no such thing as a ‘one size fits all’ type of activity or exercise plan.
As Gadd (ibid) highlights, the most effective anti-aging exercises are endurance and high-intensity interval training.
Much of the scientific community agrees that walking is one of the best and most accessible forms of physical activity, and gentle on the joints.
According to Dr. McGinnis (in Godman, 2014), “other forms of aerobic exercise that get your blood pumping might yield similar benefits.”
If you are looking to target and enhance a specific element of brain health through exercise, the following list may come in handy:
- For brain fog and concentration: Yoga, tai chi, aerobic classes;
- For memory: aerobics, walking, and cycling;
- To improve blood circulation: cardio activities (walking, riding a bicycle, running, swimming, kickboxing, skipping rope and skiing);
- For stress and anxiety: yoga;
- And for depression: aerobic and resistance training.
How Much and How Often is it Recommended?
The answer to this one varies. It depends on what kind of exercise you decide to go for, your age, your physical condition, and your health background.
In that sense, it may be more informative for you to consult your physician or a personal coach.
For memory, Godman (2013) recommends 120 minutes of moderate exercise per week. That’s only one hour, twice a week.
In contrast, Godman conveys that conventional recommendations advise 30 minutes of moderate physical activity every day, culminating to a total of around 150 minutes.
This may seem at first a bit much, but most health professionals advise people not to start immediately with long and intense workout sessions. That an easy to find yourself injured, discouraged, or overworked.
Our advice? Start adding a little exercise to your routine, in small intervals at first. The secret is not the quantity, but rather the consistency and frequency of the practice.
Remember what Wendy Suzuki said? “Think of your brain as a muscle.” If you don’t care for it, some of its parts will shrink and their function will deteriorate.
To optimize their capacity, you have to continuously train them and push them further each time. This will ensure that their current size and shape is kept in place or grown.
Golman also advises that whatever way you proceed, try to “commit to exercise as a habit, almost like taking prescription medication.”
As this article emphasizes, after all, exercise is a form of medicine for the body and the mind. Except that the BDNF protein (which the brain generates when a person exercise) and is amazing for the brain and not available in medication.
Only the brain itself can produce BDNF using regular exercise.
Whether you feel inspired or daunted, this next section is written for you.
How to Exercise like a Poet
The impact of both the culture/nature divide and Descartes’ (1596–1650) philosophical legacy in Western society still shape what we perceive to be meaningful and worthy of effort.
Descartes argued that the nature and substance of the mind or soul (which Gilbert Ryle called the “ghost in the machine”) is separate from the body. With this premise, the body is mortal while the mind is immortal.
René Descartes Portrait, Retrieved by URL, Courtesy of Creative Commons 2.0
Descartes sought to provide a scientific and rational basis to build an argument in favor of religion.
By constructing the body as an ‘unthinking animal’ byproduct of nature, Descartes celebrated the ‘higher’ mind and center of intellect.
Everything moral and sacred was cultivated through the mind, rather than the body. This created a dualistic system of perceived opposites, and these dualisms have been devastating for how we think about our bodies.
For one, the body-mind duality favors the ‘intellectuals’ among us, with the idea that only our minds are worthy of attention. In contrast, our animal bodies should be constrained from animalistic impulses, with all attention saved for the mind.
Modern science counters this notion: what we do with our bodies directly affects our brains. If we worship our brains, what better way to start than by caring for our bodies.
Perhaps it is time to step aside from our assumptions and to adopt a more holistic approach that would reconcile our wits and physical anatomy.
To address Descartes’ legacy and acknowledge the dualistic foundations of Western society, Sancho and Gutierrez (2012) offer the two following propositions:
- “Philosophy is an exercise for the mind”
- “Gymnastic is a philosophy for the body”
Similarly, the American poet Walt Whitman (1819 –1892) held faith in the relationship between the “creaturely and the creative, the physical and the poetic” (in Popova, 2018).
In this passage, Whitman bridges this inherited internalized dichotomy in a literary description of his workout in the ‘gymnasium of the wilderness’ (ibid):
“A solitary and pleasant sundown hour at the pond, exercising arms, chest, my whole body, by a tough oak sapling thick as my wrist, twelve feet high — pulling and pushing, inspiring the good air. After I wrestle with the tree awhile, I can feel its young sap and virtue welling up out of the ground and tingling through me from crown to toe, like health’s wine. Then for addition and variety, I launch forth in my vocalism; shout declamatory pieces, sentiments, sorrow, anger and, from the stock poets or plays — or inflate my lungs and sing the wild tunes and refrains I heard of the blacks down south, or patriotic songs I learn’d in the army. I make the echoes ring, I tell you!”
Another fruitful example of this bridging has been the practice of the 5,000-year-old Vedic tradition of yoga, which is only recently popular in the West.
Any practices that integrate the wellness of the body with that of the mind are on a powerful path towards daily and long-term health. For example, research confirms that yoga helps people with certain neurological issues (Mooventhan & Nivethitha, 2017).
This holistic approach also offers exercise as a potential source of meaning and spirituality.
Whatever motivates you to move, your brain and body will thank you with some healthy neural firing.
On a lighter and humorous note, Brett and McKay (2014) write how:
“while everyone’s looking for cool new “secrets” for how to build both their body and mind – shortcuts and hacks heretofore undiscovered – the truth is that strengthening our physical and mental muscles comes down to plain, good old fashioned, highly unsexy work. Gaining strength in either area is ultimately about eating right, getting ample sleep, and engaging in challenging daily exercise.”
A Take-Home Message
In this article, I outlined a few of the neurological benefits of exercise on the brain.
Research is continuously generated to uncover the mysteries that our minds and bodies have yet to disclose. Who knows—perhaps tomorrow, scientists will reveal a new ground-breaking theory regarding how exercise intersects with neurology.
Perhaps you can play with some of the ideas that I have mentioned. What works for you? What are you aiming for? We all have different psychologies and therefore exercising is not perceived nor practiced the same way by everyone.
If anything, I hope I have opened the beautiful neurological reasons to get yourself moving, for your brain and overall life-satisfaction. And I hope to have challenged your beliefs in a sufficiently alluring way.
Today, if not tomorrow, may you find inspiration and value in what Sanchez and Gutierrez call the “philosophy for the body.”
What is your current or “goal” relation with exercise? We would love to hear your comments below.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our 3 Positive Psychology Exercises for free.
If you wish for more, our Positive Psychology Toolkit© contains over 300 science-based positive psychology exercises, interventions, questionnaires, and assessments for practitioners to use in their therapy, coaching, or workplace.
- MIT Media Lab. (2015). Optimizing Your Brain Though Exercise [Image]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cLBXtclu0sg
- Physionic. (2019). SQ: Insulin-like Growth Factor (IGF) and Muscle Synthesis [Video]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QT1Ac_xZWp0
- Seals, J. (2012). Fibroblast Growth Factor (FGF) & Stem Cells [Video]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vyLmWffC_xk
- Suzuki, W. (2019). The brain-changing benefits of exercise | Wendy Suzuki [Image]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BHY0FxzoKZE
- Ted-Ed. (2014). What happens when you remove the hippocampus? – Sam Kean [Video]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KkaXNvzE4pk
- TEDx Talks. (2018). From Synapses to Circuits, the Molecules that Grow Your Brain [Video]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DPg2Gvpdymw
- Online sources
- Anderson, R. (2014). Pharma industry gets high on profits. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/business-28212223
- Berezin, R. (2015). Psychiatric Drugs Are False Prophets With Big Profits. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/the-theater-the-brain/201507/psychiatric-drugs-are-false-prophets-big-profits
- Bergland, C. (2012). The Neurochemicals of Happiness. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-athletes-way/201211/the-neurochemicals-happiness
- Carroll, A. (2018). Why standing desks are overrated. Retrieved from https://www.seattletimes.com/business/why-standing-desks-are-overrated/
- DeNoon, D. (2013). Benefit to improving diet and exercise at the same time – Harvard Health Blog. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/benefit-to-improving-diet-and-exercise-at-the-same-time-201304266126
- Gadd, E. (2018). How to Slow Aging on a Cellular Level with Exercise – Optimal Health & Wellness Centre. Retrieved from https://optihealthwellness.com/how-to-slow-aging-on-a-cellular-level-with-exercise/
- Godman, H. (2014). Regular exercise changes the brain to improve memory, thinking skills – Harvard Health Blog. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/regular-exercise-changes-brain-improve-memory-thinking-skills-201404097110
- Headsqueeze. (2014). Brain: Why exercise boosts IQ. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20141010-why-exercise-boosts-iq
- Hourican, E. (2019). ‘Modern medicine is like the medieval church’ – Independent.ie. Retrieved from https://www.independent.ie/life/health-wellbeing/modern-medicine-is-like-the-medieval-church-37749518.html?fbclid=IwAR3VWNxj4JsznnpVF79pPCPU3qH3S_H8rRFh5YkpI9DO292RAt5ewz9y8Y8
- Krantz-Kent, R. (2018). Television, capturing America’s attention at prime time and beyond : Beyond the Numbers: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved from https://www.bls.gov/opub/btn/volume-7/television-capturing-americas-attention.htm?view_full
- McKay, B. (2019). 11 Exercises That Will Strengthen Your Attention and Concentration | The Art of Manliness. Retrieved from https://www.artofmanliness.com/articles/your-concentration-training-program-11-exercises-that-will-strengthen-your-attention/
- Monbiot, G. (2018). We’re in a new age of obesity. How did it happen? You’d be surprised | George Monbiot. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/aug/15/age-of-obesity-shaming-overweight-people
- Popova, M. (2018). How to Exercise Like a Poet: The Walt Whitman Workout. Retrieved from https://www.brainpickings.org/2018/06/05/walt-whitman-workout/
- Romm, A. 10 Things Brain Fog Might Be Telling You. Retrieved from https://avivaromm.com/what-brain-fog-is-telling-you/
- Shaw, J. (2014). The Deadliest Sin. Retrieved from https://harvardmagazine.com/2004/03/the-power-of-exercise
Trafton, A. (2015). The rise and fall of cognitive skills. Retrieved from http://news.mit.edu/2015/brain-peaks-at-different-ages-0306
- WHO | Urbanization and health. (2010). Retrieved from https://www.who.int/bulletin/volumes/88/4/10-010410/en/
- Åberg, M. A., Pedersen, N. L., Torén, K., Svartengren, M., Bäckstrand, B., Johnsson, T., … & Kuhn, H. G. (2009). Cardiovascular fitness is associated with cognition in young adulthood. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106(49), 20906-20911.
- American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (DSM-5®). American Psychiatric Pub.
- Coles, K., & Tomporowski, P. D. (2008). Effects of acute exercise on executive processing, short-term and long-term memory. Journal of sports sciences, 26(3), 333-344.
- Cooney, G. M., Dwan, K., Greig, C. A., Lawlor, D. A., Rimer, J., Waugh, F. R., … & Mead, G. E. (2013). Exercise for depression. Cochrane database of systematic reviews, (9).
- Erickson, K. I., Voss, M. W., Prakash, R. S., Basak, C., Szabo, A., Chaddock, L., … & Wojcicki, T. R. (2011). Exercise training increases size of hippocampus and improves memory. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(7), 3017-3022.
- France, R. (2008). Introduction to physical education and sport science. Nelson Education.
- Harvey SB, Øverland S, Hatch SL, Wessely S, Mykletun A, Hotopf M, et al. Exercise and the prevention of depression: Results of the HUNT cohort study. Am J Psychiatry 2018;175:28-36.
- Kolb, B., Muhammad, A., & Gibb, R., Searching for factors underlying cerebral plasticity in the normal and injured brain, Journal of Communication Disorders (2010).
- Mitchell, R. L., & Kumari, V. (2016). Hans Eysenck’s interface between the brain and personality: Modern evidence on the cognitive neuroscience of personality. Personality and Individual Differences, 103, 74-81.
- Mooventhan, A., & Nivethitha, L. (2017). Evidence based effects of yoga in neurological disorders. Journal of Clinical Neuroscience, 43, 61-67.
- McManus, S., Bebbington, P., Jenkins, R., & Brugha, T. (2016). Mental Health and Wellbeing in England: Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey 2014: a Survey Carried Out for NHS Digital by
- NatCen Social Research and the Department of Health Sciences, University of Leicester. NHS Digital.
- Ploughman, M. (2008). Exercise is brain food: the effects of physical activity on cognitive function. Developmental neurorehabilitation, 11(3), 236-240.
- Puterman, E., Lin, J., Blackburn, E., O’Donovan, A., Adler, N., & Epel, E. (2010). The power of exercise: buffering the effect of chronic stress on telomere length. PloS one, 5(5), e10837.
- Preston, A. R., & Eichenbaum, H. (2013). Interplay of hippocampus and prefrontal cortex in memory. Current Biology, 23(17), R764-R773.
- Ratey, J. J. (2008). Spark: The revolutionary new science of exercise and the brain. Little, Brown.
- Roig, M., Skriver, K., Lundbye-Jensen, J., Kiens, B., & Nielsen, J. B. (2012). A single bout of exercise improves motor memory. PloS one, 7(9), e44594.
- Sánchez, A., & Gutiérrez, J. (2012). Mind and body versus Gymnastics and philosophy: from dualism to emergentism. (Mente-cuerpo versus filosofía-gimnasia: del dualismo al emergentismo). Cultura_Ciencia_Deporte, 7(19), 5-18. doi: 10.12800/ccd.v7i19.19
- Schoenfeld, T. J., Rada, P., Pieruzzini, P. R., Hsueh, B., & Gould, E. (2013). Physical exercise prevents stress-induced activation of granule neurons and enhances local inhibitory mechanisms in the dentate gyrus. Journal of Neuroscience, 33(18), 7770-7777.
- Schwarb, H., Johnson, C. L., Daugherty, A. M., Hillman, C. H., Kramer, A. F., Cohen, N. J., & Barbey, A. K. (2017). Aerobic fitness, hippocampal viscoelasticity, and relational memory performance. Neuroimage, 153, 179-188.
- Steljes, T. P., Kinoshita, Y., Wheeler, E. F., Oppenheim, R. W., & von Bartheld, C. S. (1999). Neurotrophic factor regulation of developing avian oculomotor neurons: differential effects of BDNF and GDNF. Journal of neurobiology, 41(2), 295-315.
- Watson, N. J., Weir, S., & Friend, S. (2005). The development of muscular Christianity in Victorian Britain and beyond. Journal of religion and society.
- Whitman, W. (1882). Specimen days.
- Zeeni, N., Haidar, E. A., Azar, A., Ghanem, A., Bassil, K., Bassil, M., & Sleiman, S. (2017). The Combinatory Effects of Diet and Exercise on BDNF Gene Expression. The FASEB Journal, 31(1_supplement), 150-8.