5 Ways Science Proves Exercise Keeps Your Brain Young

Dr. Tieraona Low Dog

Exercise is often the focus of our wellness routine for the purposes of weight-loss, but exercise offers so much more than a healthy weight. It has been shown to reduce the risk of many of our most fatal diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and stroke, but exercise also improves quality of life and enhances our cognitive function. Let’s take a closer look at how your brain benefits from working out, according to science.

— Tieraona Low Dog, M.D.

We know regular exercise reduces your risk of diseases including diabetes, stroke, and heart disease (to name a few). But more and more, studies are finding just how important exercise is for your cognitive function. In fact, one study found if you regularly exercise and stop for just ten days there’s a decline in brain health and cerebral blood flow. Your brain responds to exercise, or lack of exercise, incredibly fast!

Working out releases endorphins, improves memory, prevents depression, and anxiety. Studies have shown regular exercise, even walking 30 to 45 minutes each day, can delay the onset of dementia. Let’s take a closer look at how your brain benefits from working out, according to science.


Five Ways Your Brain Benefits from Working Out


1. Improves Cognitive Function

Cardio may actually make you smarter. When you go on a run or a bike ride, your body releases brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). BDNF is a protein your brain needs for learning and a good memory. You also need BDNF to create new brain cells and to protect your brain from damage. 


2. Improves Your Memory 

Studies have found exercise improves your memory. Specifically, aerobic exercise boosts activity in the hippocampus, which is the center of memory and learning in your brain. 

Researchers have even found if you walk or cycle while learning a new language your brain will remember the newly acquired vocabulary better. Though if your workouts are too high in intensity and release too much cortisol is released, it can work against you. So, it’s important to find a happy medium.


3. Sharpens Your Concentration

Exercising regularly makes it easier to concentrate and can prevent you from getting distracted. One study on Dutch children found that when 20-minute exercise routines were added to the school day, the students could focus longer, multitask better, and ignore distractions more easily. 

Apply this to your day by adding short breaks where you take a brisk walk. You can try this out during your lunch break, which may help you get over that afternoon slump. 


4. Balances Your Mental Health

Exercise is effective in combating depression. Working out may be the last thing you want to do when you’re feeling down, but it’s also probably the best thing you can do. 

Additionally, a 2010 study found yoga and meditation has a beneficial effect the amygdala – the portion of your brain which often fuels stress, anxiety, and fear. 


5. Boosts Creativity & Mood

Studies have found that cardio makes you more creative and happier. You’ve probably heard of a runner’s high, a phenomenon which occurs when your brain releases endorphins after you’ve pushed yourself aerobically. 


What Workouts Does Your Brain Like Best?

Now that we know working out is excellent for brain function, the next questions to consider are how to optimize your workouts for your brain. 

• How often and how long should you workout? 

• What time of day gives you the best results and most benefits? 

• What types of exercises are best for your brain?

The key to making your workouts work for you is to choose exercise parameters that give your brain the best boost. 


Exercise to Boost Your Brainpower 

Studies have identified factors for optimum brain health and you might be surprised to learn they aren’t too intense. 

To make your brain sharper, follow these basic guidelines:

Type of Exercise: Exercises should alternate between aerobic activities (like jogging) and strengthening exercises (like weightlifting or resistance band training). 

Women tend to stick with aerobic exercise, but I recommend adding strength training to your regimen. There’s a lot of evidence suggesting resistance training is excellent for your brain. 

A 2010 report of randomized studies found strengthening workouts improve cognition and memory while decreasing anxiety and fatigue. This same study found strengthening workouts also make you happier.  

Duration: The ideal amount of time you should exercise is between 30 and 45 minutes each day. 

Even walking for 30 minutes a day has shown to have significant benefits. One study found walking for 30 minutes a day protects elderly patients with Alzheimer’s from further cognitive decline. 

However, I want to take a moment to point out if you don’t have 30 minutes to devote each day, 10 minutes is better than nothing. In fact, one study found 10 minutes of interval training was as beneficial as 45 minutes of continuous, low-intensity exercise. 

Intensity: Exercising should be primarily moderate intensity (brisk walking).

While I think that vigorous workouts offer many benefits for the cardiovascular system, be aware that prolonged, high-intensity workouts can sometimes be counterproductive, especially women. This is because workouts where your heart rate stays elevated at 65-70 percent of your max heart rate, can deplete your T3 thyroid hormone. This is because of the rise in cortisol. Some research says taking vitamin C before working out can help reduce the rise in cortisol, which might be beneficial for T3.

Frequency: You should try to exercise every single day. Not only is it good for your brain and body, it creates good habits. When you aren’t exercising each day, it makes it harder to incorporate working out into your routine. 

Remember these parameters are to optimize your workouts for your brain. If you prefer to workout in the afternoon or only have 15 minutes, just do what you can. The most important thing is that you are moving!


Working Out for a Smarter, Happier, Healthier You

There’s no doubt about it; your brain loves it when you exercise. I encourage you to workout once a day, even if you can only squeeze in 10 minutes. The most important thing is for working out to become a habit and part of your daily health routine. You can go for a walk or train for triathlons – depending on your health goals. Either way, it’s important for your brain that you do some form of physical activity. 

You know working out impacts your body, but you might be surprised at just how much it positively impacts your brain. Get moving today!