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3 Ways Exercise Feeds Your Brain

7 Brain-Building Ways to Exercise

  1. Walk or ride your bicycle to work.
  2. Try a new sport or fitness activity.
  3. Change your exercise with new activities, routes, and formats.
  4. Do mentally-challenging activities like dancing or racquet sports.
  5. Follow your cardio workout with balance exercises.
  6. Play soccer or basketball with your kids.
  7. Walk, run, or climb stairs on your lunch break.

by Beth Shepard, M.S., ACE-CPT, ACSM-RCEP, Wellcoaches Certified Wellness Coach

Ever feel like you could use a few more brain cells — or wish you could do something to enrich and protect the ones you've got? You can — whether you're 9 years old or 90 — by making exercise a part of your everyday life.

An increasing number of studies point to the importance of regular exercise for boosting brain function and protecting against cognitive impairment at any age.

Prevents Shrinkage

A study conducted on dementia-free older adults found those who walked 72 blocks (or 6-9 miles) a week had more gray matter than people who walked less. Better yet, the increased brain volume was linked with a 2-fold decrease in risk for cognitive decline.

Exercise needs to be aerobic to promote positive brain effects, according to Dr. John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist and author of Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School (Pear Press 2008). Strength training alone doesn't have the same positive brain effects as combining cardiovascular and strength training.

People who exercise regularly have about half the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease and dementia than their sedentary counterparts. What could be more important than protecting yourself from these devastating conditions?

Enhances Plasticity

Plasticity is the brain's ability to rewire its circuits based on everyday encounters — with people, problems, and information. It's vital for acquiring and using knowledge and skills, and adapting to changing environments and circumstances.

Exercise has a positive effect on brain plasticity, as revealed in a study of older adults in a walking program. Remarkable improvements in cognitive function and brain plasticity were seen in subjects who walked at a moderate pace for 40 minutes, 3 days a week for a full year.

Promotes Learning

In Spark – The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain (Little, Brown, and Company 2008), Dr. John J. Ratey explains that exercise floods the brain with a substance called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which helps new brain cells sprout, grow, and thrive. A major outcome of this brain cell cultivation is an enhanced ability to learn — and learn at a faster rate.

It's not surprising that a number of studies have linked physical activity levels with school success in children. A study of 3rd and 5th-graders found that aerobic fitness was positively associated with overall academic achievement, reading achievement, and math achievement, even accounting for other influences such as socioeconomic status.

BDNF alone doesn't boost learning — there has to be a stimulus for baby brain cells to chew on. And how you structure your workouts can make a big difference. Combining aerobic exercise with more complex activities, such as a treadmill run followed by practicing conversational French, creates optimal conditions for brain growth. Vigorous activities that involve complex motor skills —figure skating, racquetball, or rock climbing for example — also fit the bill. Changing up your workout routine with new activities, routes, and formats will help keep your body fit and your brain challenged.

If possible, time your cardio sweat session to happen just before you need your sharpest critical thinking skills. Exercise before work to drive your morning productivity, or squeeze in a lunch workout to shine at your afternoon meeting.

Get Moving to Save Your Brain

A sedentary lifestyle does more than contribute to weight gain, diabetes, and heart disease. It's, quite literally, a brain-snatcher. It robs you of the neurologic health you need to be your best now and maintain your quality of life as you get older — and can even shorten your lifespan. Give yourself, and the people you love, a priceless gift: exercise regularly to keep your brain in good working order.


  1. Voss M, et. al., Plasticity of Brain Networks in a Randomized Intervention Trial of Exercise Training in Older Adults, Front Aging Neurosci. 2010; 2: 32]
  2. Erickson K, et. al., Physical activity predicts gray matter volume in late adulthood; The Cardiovascular Health Study, Neurology, published ahead of print Oct 13, 2010.
  3. Castelli D, Hillman C, Buck S, Erwin H, Physical Fitness and Academic Achievement in Third and Fifth Grade Students, Journal of Spor & Exercise Psychology, 2007; 29: 239-252.
  4. Medina J, Brain Rules, Pear Press, 2008.
  5. Ratey J, Hagerman E, Spark – The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, Little, Brown, and Company, 2008.