This Is How Exercise Benefits The Brain – The Science

Unless you’ve been living under a rock (and have snatched it off the ground a few times), you’ve almost certainly heard that exercise is good for your body. But many students and professionals still believe in ignoring physical fitness, hoping to dedicate more time to their studies and achieving better exam results. This couldn’t be more wrong. Your brain is not separate from the rest of your body, and exercise benefits the brain. You think therefore you should lift.

What are the neurological benefits of exercise? Well, exercise promotes neurogenesis, i.e.; creation of new brain cells. These brain cells are responsible for your great mental health which also leads to overall well-being. Good cardiovascular fitness regime helps in promoting the formation of the nervous tissue. 

Key Definitions:

  • Neurogenesis: In this process, neurons are generated from the stem cells. 
  • Synaptogenesis: Synapses are formed between the neurons in the nervous system of the body. It occurs during the whole lifetime,  but it occurs more during early child development and this can be promoted by exercise. 
  • Gliogenesis: Glia cells like astrocytes, oligodendrocytes, etc are formed. 
  • Angiogenesis: This is the process of formation of new blood vessels. 

BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) stimulates new brain cell growth (Source). Exercise also helps promote the growth of neurotransmitter and some chemicals which are beneficial to the brain like dopamine and serotonin. Doing exercise is good for your cognitive health.  

There are many pieces of evidence which point to the fact that physical exercise is a gene strong modulator. It induces structural as well as functional changes in the brain. This promotes the cognitive functions of the body and great physical health. Many studies have shown that PE (physical exercise) affects brain plasticity which directly influences cognitive functions and well-being, one of the more overlooked aspects of exercise which benefits the brain.  

Proper working of cognitive functions is really important because when you have good cognitive functioning then only you will be able to make better decisions. Emotional states are influenced by cognitive functions through the cerebral circuitry which involves limbic structures and prefrontal areas of the brain.  

Another link which is present between the cognitive functions and exercising is neurotrophins. These are the proteins which aid neuron survival and their functions. It has been observed that exercising increases neurotrophins, which in turn increases the brain plasticity. Greater brain plasticity means better memory and fast learning. In addition to neurotrophins, exercising also leads to an increase in the neurotransmitters (Source) which help in boosting the mood and information processing capability. 

What exactly is Physical Exercise? 

Often physical activity and physical exercise are confused. Physical activity is when any movement of the body part results in the energy expenditure. Physical exercise is a subpart of PA and it involves planned and structured daily activities which are repetitive that can be considered as a 
determinant for a healthy lifestyle (related article)

Human studies have found: 

  • Increases in grey matter in the frontal and hippocampal regions. 
  • Neurotrophic factors such as peripheral BDNF increases. 
  • Increases in blood flow. 
  • Children do better at school.

Another element of how exercise benefits the brain is improvements to learning and memory. Keeping oneself focused on one thing also improves. Risk of developing Dementia decreases especially in elderly people. Also, it prevents a decline in cognitive abilities in elderly people. 

Network topology of the brain gets modified, i.e.; new connections between neurons are created. 

Neurotransmission system gets modulated. 

Neurotrophic factors like BDNF AND IGI-1 increases. 

Spatial memory performance improves.
 

Animal studies have found: 

Usually, in studies related to animals, rodents have to complete some motor activities like running on a wheel for observing the effect of exercise on the brain.  

Intense activities were shown to increase the number of neurons. It also showed an increase of proliferation of Glia cells in the hippocampus and neocortex. Angiogenesis is also observed in the prefrontal cortex,  hippocampus and the cerebellum part of the brain.  

a web of neurons


Spatial abilities and cognitive functions were shown to improve even further with exercise. It showed similar structure and function changes in older animals. This proves that the problems of the brain that comes with old age also can be slowed down and a healthier brain can be obtained by just doing regular Physical exercise. 

Also according to studies, to have more effect on the neuro health of older people, they should start doing exercises before the onset of neurodegeneration. Neurodegeneration involves the progressive loss of neurons including neuron’s deaths. So, taking the precaution of doing exercise before this starts will help you retain your brain functions even more.  

The most interesting thing is these positive impacts can be passed on to the next generation. Positive experiences of the mother can induce biochemical changes that also affect the offspring. Some studies have shown that maternal exercise when pregnant can be passed to the baby. It has been observed that the pregnant rodents running on the wheel have offspring which have better spatial memory (Source).

What are the exact biological and Physiological effects of exercise? 

Biological effects: 

The cerebral blood flow increases leading to the maximum oxygen consumption. This also increases the delivery of oxygen to the brain. It helps in reducing muscle tension. Endocannabinoid receptor concentration increases as well.

Structure of the cerebral network changes which also includes an increase in the level of neurotransmitters. 


In children, PE can be correlated with better task goal orientation and leads to a high level of self-efficacy.  In both youth and adult, it was shown to impact one’s mood and self-image.  


There are many effects due to PE but the main one which impacts our brain is neuroplasticity. It is an important feature which modifies its response to situations according to the experiences. PE acts as a nourishment factor for promoting neuroplasticity as it provides the environment for it.  

Depression and anxiety: 

Depression is the most common kind of mental disease which will become one of the leading cause of disease by 2020. Studies have shown that people who exercised regularly were happier, self-assured and less depressed in comparison to people who did not exercise. 

Aerobic exercise/Cardio exercise is especially known to affect the mood as these exercises are modelled in such a way that you let in more oxygen. Breathing in more oxygen improves your mood as well as makes your body healthier. Even anaerobic exercises are known to affect health in a 
positive manner. So, don’t think twice now, just get your shoes and get going.  

Addictive and unhealthy behaviour: 

Resistance Training: 

The relation between resistance training and cognitive functions is not fully understood. On the cellular level, the main component which may be behind the relation between cognitive functions and resistance training is considered to be an insulin-like growth factor known as IGF-1 (Source). Increase in the levels of  IGF-1 leads to an increase in the synaptic processes, angiogenesis, neuroprotection or even axon outgrowth. It also may lead to dendritic maturation and migration of neuronal progenitors.  

Deficiency in IGI-1 can lead to the risk of cardiovascular problems. It is also believed that there may be a relation between the decrease in the level of IGI-1 and neurodegeneration, i.e.; loss of neurons. Also, IGI-1 levels are observed to be low in ageing individuals who have not exercised much in their lifetime. 

The levels of IGI-1 are increased after the single routine of strength training itself. However, currently, the results are not fully solid to establish the relation between the IGI-1 released from physical training and cognitive function. But, one study does suggest that changes in IGI-1 concentration after doing resistance training for a long period is related to cognitive functions. In addition to this, long term strength training is also related to reduced white matter lesion progression (Source). This was observed after 52 weeks of resistance training. Changes in white matter are known to affect the brain’s processing speed and the tasks which depend on speed. So when asked the question whether exercise benefits brain power and cognitive function – you now know the answer is yes.

Can changing the environment help increase the effects of exercise? 

Yes! In housed rats, it was shown that the one in the more social environment had more stimulation of the hippocampal neurogenesis than the rats who were in isolation. In humans, it has been observed that when people play in teams, they have more brain health development in comparison to people who work alone at the gym. There is also the added social benefits to exercising in team sports in that men and women learn how to communicate, function, and move towards a common goal together whilst having fun and performing physical activity.

Positive impact of team sports on brain development

Is exercising in ambient temperature more beneficial? 

Your brain works properly in a range of temperature. The exercise leads to an increase in the heat in the brain. This is the reason why exercising is physiologically a challenge to the brain. So, if one works in the ambient temperature the brain also does not gets heated up. 
If one works out in hot temperature then it will lead to more exhaustion than the benefits to the brain. 

Don’t believe the science jargon? Then put it to the test. 

According to research, if you walk briskly for one hour, twice in a week, it counts as moderate exercise that benefits the brain. Standard recommendations which have come in advise dedicating 150 minutes per week to moderate exercise. Even, swimming, playing tennis will also do.  

Aerobic exercises till now have been known to be the best as they increase oxygen in your blood flow. 

Now, put yourself to a memory test. There are many available online. Now, try these tests before and after you have started exercising, you will observe the difference. 

Tips for choosing the correct exercise: 

Generally whatever exercise is good for your heart is also good for your brain. 

Aerobic Exercise/Cardio Exercise is an exercise which increases oxygen in the bloodstream. It is good for both physical and mental wellness. It will improve your ability to learn as well as increase your focus.  

By exercising in the morning you not only start your day with a positive note but it will also help you retain that positivity throughout the day leading to less stress and tension which prepare you for your day’s challenges. 

When you want to change your workout then look for exercises which also involve coordination like dancing. This will help you make new neural connections and make it more fun. Exercise benefits the brain, but it can also benefit your chances of impressing a member of the opposite sex.

As you grow more confident, challenge yourself by choosing circuit training workouts as they elevate your heart rate and improve your coordination. Much like striving for academic and professional excellence, don’t choose workouts because they look easy, choose them because they’re hard. In times when the weather is hot and you have access to a pool, what better time to try our Swimming Pool Workout.

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