10 Brain-Changing Benefits of Exercise
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Learn what happens to your brain when you exercise. The brain-changing benefits of exercise extend much further than most would think.
Exercise can dramatically improve your learning, memory, mood, and much more. It can reduce anxiety and help with depression.
Just by starting to exercise you can improve the function and power of your brain.
When we think of exercise, we think of building muscle, burning fat, and getting into better shape.
But working out has further miraculous effects on things like hormone regulation, the nervous system, your body chemistry, and especially your brain.
This is why exercising consistently can help improve all areas of your life, whether we’re talking about finances, education, or just your mood.
Even if you haven’t been exercising in a while, you can experience many of the amazing benefits very quickly.
#1 Boost your learning potential
The first, often overlooked, benefit of exercising for your brain is just how much it can help you learn better and faster.
It turns out that the common quote “all brawns, and no brains” couldn’t be further from the truth.
In fact, across the world, research shows that students with higher fitness scores also have higher test scores. (1)
That’s because being physically active ends up having a positive influence on things like concentration, focus, and learning ability.
Much of this boost in learning ability is thanks to something known as “brain-derived neurotrophic factor”, or BDNF.
Basically, the stress from exercise leads your brain to create new cells. This is a necessary step in the learning process.
Exercise directly increases the production of protein in the brain, which in turn promotes the growth of neurons.
It also promotes the connection between the neurons and allows them to communicate with each other more efficiently.
BDNF is just one of these proteins that get boosted when you exercise. It’s also arguably the most important when it comes to learning.
That’s why BDNF has been called “Miracle Grow For Your Brain”.
This helps explain why researchers noticed that people can learn vocabulary 20% faster after intense physical exercise. (2)
So if you want to learn something new, working out is probably the last thing on your mind. But it turns out it can drastically help, especially when we consider its effect over time.
#2 Improved emotion management
And another one of those effects is Improved Emotional Regulation. This essentially boils down to how you handle your emotions.
This is, of course, an important skill. Being able to control emotions such as anger, sadness, or hunger is better than being taken over or run by them.
Exercise can help with this, as shown by a 2019 study. (3) In this study, researchers “examined the effect[s] of [an] 8-week mind-body exercise intervention that combined jogging and mindfulness-based yoga.
The researchers wanted to see the effect this had on “implicit emotion regulation”. (4)
The researchers concluded that “eight weeks of mind-body exercise intervention does improve implicit emotion regulation.” (5)
They also mentioned that “improved aerobic fitness could predict even greater improvement of implicit emotion regulation ability.” (6)
Therefore, if you want to improve your emotion regulation, exercise – especially aerobic – can really help.
Even if you’re not exercising now, you can feel these effects on your mood and emotions pretty quickly.
This study only lasted eight weeks and the participants were already able to feel major benefits in that short time frame.
#3 Memory boost
Next, let’s talk about how exercise affects your memory.
In a study from the University of British Columbia, researchers found that regular aerobic exercise (the kind that gets your heart and your sweat glands pumping) boosts the size of the hippocampus. (7)
This is the portion of the brain involved in verbal memory and learning.
When functioning properly, it helps you memorize and learn. Meanwhile, any kind of disfunction with the hippocampus can lead to major diseases like Alzheimer’s disease.
Interestingly, the study did not find the same benefits for resistance training.
So, if you want to improve your memory, you’ll most likely have to add some cardiovascular training to your routine.
I do highly recommend it. Just make sure you’re not overdoing it, if your goal is to also maximize muscle growth. Too much cardio can interfere with your resistance training.
The Harvard Medical School also noticed that exercise can benefit memory in other direct and indirect means. (8)
They stated that the direct benefits come from “its ability to reduce insulin resistance, reduce inflammation, and stimulate the release of growth factors.
These growth factors are chemicals that affect the health of brain cells, the growth of new blood vessels in the brain, and even the abundance and survival of new brain cells.” (9)
#4 Reduced social anxiety
Exercise can also help you socially, by literally decreasing your levels of social anxiety.
Chances are high that you, or someone you know, is dealing with anxiety. One in five adult Americans, and one in three teenagers, reported having a chronic anxiety disorder this past year.
But, once again, exercise can drastically help. A recent meta-analysis found that people with anxiety disorders, who also reported high levels of physical activity, were better protected against developing anxiety symptoms than those who reported low levels of physical activity. (10)
And the Harvard Medical School clarifies exactly how exercise achieves this. First, “exercise helps to divert your mind” from the very thing you’re anxious about. (11)
Second, moving your body will also decrease built-up muscle tension. This reduces your body’s physical contribution to the feeling of anxiety. (11)
Other things will happen too. For example, your heart rate will increase when you exercise, and that actually changes your brain chemistry.
It increases the availability of important anti-anxiety neurochemicals, including serotonin, GABA, BDNF, and endocannabinoids. (11)
All of these can help you feel less anxious. And it turns out exercising regularly helps you build up better mental resilience and deal with difficult emotions better. (11)
But even if you don’t regularly exercise, research shows that just a single exercise session can be enough to ease anxiety when it strikes. (12)
#5 Reduced stress
Another huge benefit exercise provides for your brain is decreased stress.
As stated by the American Academic Medical Center Mayo Clinic, “exercise in many forms can act as a stress reliever.” (13)
They give four reasons for this. First, it pumps up your endorphins, which are brain chemicals that make you feel good. (14)
People often call this “runner’s high”. Any physical activity can stimulate it, but especially aerobic activity like cardio or high-intensity interval training.
The second thing is that exercising will reduce the negative effects of stress. (15) In a study from Princeton University (16) researchers looked at the difference in stress response between sedentary mice and those that had undergone a running program.
The results showed that the sedentary, inactive, mice experienced a significant stress response when exposed to cold water. The active mice didn’t.
This indicates that exercise makes your body more resistant to stress.
The third benefit of exercise for your stress levels is that it’s literally “meditation in motion.” (17)
When you’re in the middle of exercising, you’ll often find that you’ve forgotten the things that were irritating you before.
Beginning your workout, those voices have shut down or become quieter. Now you’re concentrated only on your body’s movements.
This state of mind helps you stay calm and focused.
The fourth and final benefit against stress concerns the way that exercise improves your mood. (18) Regular exercise increases self-confidence, improves your mood, helps you relax, and reduces symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Exercise can also improve your sleep, which is often disrupted by stress, depression, and anxiety.
All these benefits can ease your stress levels and give you a sense of command over your own body and life. (19)
#6 Better mood
Depression is actually another thing that exercise highly helps with. Exercise can help increase feel-good hormones like serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine.
All these hormones help boost your mood and overall sense of well-being.
Over time, exercise can even positively change your brain’s entire reward system.
This is probably why exercise had such favorable outcomes when it was compared to Zoloft in a 16-week long study.
If you’re not aware, Zoloft is an anti-depressant. In this study, the exercise group simply jogged for 30 minutes, 3 times a week. Meanwhile, the other group did not exercise and took Zoloft treatment instead.
After 16 weeks, jogging was just as effective as Zoloft at treating depression.
The same people from this study were followed up for 6 months in an additional study. The patients that continued to exercise after the initial trial were much less likely to experience depression symptoms relapses.
This was not the case for the patients who did not exercise and only used Zoloft.
Only 8% of patients in the exercise group had their depression return. Meanwhile, 38% of the drug-only group had their depression return.
#7 Decreased risk of dementia
Let’s move on to a more long-term benefit that many people may overlook, but can have life-changing implications.
Research shows that people who exercise regularly have lower rates of age-related memory and cognitive decline than inactive people. (20)
One study even showed that people who exercise the most have a 20% lower risk of developing cognitive impairment than those who are the least active. (21)
We also have evidence that shows that resistance training can improve the memory of elderly individuals with prior memory problems. It can even protect against the development of Alzheimer’s disease. (22)
This is supported by a similar study that found that people over 65 had much lower chances of dementia if they exercised at least 3 times per week. (23)
Now, if you’re young, you’re probably not worried about Alzheimer’s yet. And you may assume that those benefits don’t apply to you, or you start protecting your brain later in life.
Well, first of all, the best time to start exercising if you actually want to, is today, not tomorrow.
Also, keep in mind that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
By staying active throughout your life, you’ll keep all the tissues in your body, including your brain, in better shape. This will benefit you not only now, but also when you’re older.
#8 Energy boost
Another exercise benefit for your brain is improved energy levels.
When people are fatigued, the last thing they often want to do is exercise. But if you’re physically inactive and fatigued, being more active will actually help.
This was found by a new analysis from the University of Georgia. (24) Researchers concluded that “chronic exercise significantly increased feelings of energy and lessens feelings of fatigue.
In a conversation with sciencedaily.com, Patrick O’Connor (co-author of the study) stated that more than 90% of the studies showed the same thing.
“Sedentary people who completed a regular exercise program reported improved fatigue compared to the groups and people that did not exercise.” (25)
He also noticed that “nearly every group studied – from healthy adults to cancer patients – benefited from exercise”. (26)
The bottom line is – if you lack energy or experience a lot of brain fog throughout the day, just exercise.
It might sound counterintuitive, but it does work.
#9 Better blood circulation in the brain
The next exercise benefit to the brain is improved blood circulation.
Proper blood flow to the brain is important because too little results in a lack of glucose and oxygen. These are both necessary to keep your neurons active.
Suboptimal brain blood flow may lead to a condition called “ischemia“.
Luckily, there are several ways you can increase blood flow to the brain. For example, by eating nitrate-rich foods like beets or supplementing with ginkgo biloba.
But exercise can also help a great deal. A new study by researchers at UT Southwestern Medical School investigated this.
It shows that when older adults with mild memory loss followed an exercise program for a year, brain blood flow increased significantly. (27)
This effect is due to exercise’s ability to reduce the stiffness of your arteries. This makes it easier for your heart to pump blood throughout the body, including the brain.
Keep in mind, without enough blood flow to the brain, it’s easy to develop further health conditions. These include memory and learning problems and other cognitive dysfunctions that will get worse over time.
#10 Better sleep
The last benefit of exercise for your brain deals with the effect that it has on your sleeping schedule.
It’s well-known that exercise can help you sleep better. Good sleep is essential for your brain.
It removes toxins from your brain that build up while you are awake. And that’s just one of the benefits that sleeping has for your brain.
Exercise can help increase your sleep quality by reducing the amount of time it takes for you to fall asleep (28).
Obviously, if you’re not overweight, you’re less likely to be affected by conditions that mess with your sleep, like sleep apnea. (29)
People that report regularly exercising also report better quality sleep than people that don’t exercise.
So that about wraps it up. If you’d like to experience these brain-boosting benefits yourself, but you’re not exactly sure what workout plan to follow or where to get started, you can check out the link below.
We have done-for-you plans that can help anyone, from beginners to more advanced individuals.
Aside from improving your brain, these programs can help you burn over 20 pounds of fat, or 5 percent of your body fat, in just 6 weeks.
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- Students with higher levels of physical fitness tend to have higher academic achievement.
- “We found that vocabulary learning was 20% faster after intense physical exercise as compared to the other two conditions.”
- Exercise can help with Implicit emotion regulation.
- “Examine the effect of 8-week mind-body exercise intervention combining aerobic jogging and mindfulness-based yoga on implicit emotion regulation ability.”
- “Eight weeks of mind-body exercise intervention improves implicit emotion regulation ability.”
- “Improved aerobic fitness could predict greater improvement of implicit emotion regulation ability.”
- Researchers found that regular aerobic exercise boosts the size of the hippocampus.
- “Exercise helps memory and thinking through both direct and indirect means”.
- “Its ability to reduce insulin resistance, reduce inflammation, and stimulate the release of growth factors—chemicals in the brain that affect the health of brain cells, the growth of new blood vessels in the brain, and even the abundance and survival of new brain cells.”
- People with anxiety disorders who reported high-level physical activity were better protected against developing symptoms than those who reported low physical activity.
- Depression rates were lower in the exercise group than in the sertraline and sertraline plus exercise groups
- Some research shows that just a single bout of exercise can be enough to ease anxiety when it strikes
- “Exercise in almost any form can act as a stress reliever.”
- “It pumps up your endorphins.”
- “It reduces negative effects of stress.”
- Sedentary mice experienced a significant stress response when exposed to cold water, but not the active mice.
- “It’s meditation in motion.”
- “It improves your mood.”
- “Regular exercise can increase self-confidence, improve your mood, help you relax, and lower symptoms of mild depression and anxiety. Exercise can also improve your sleep, which is often disrupted by stress, depression, and anxiety. All of these exercise benefits can ease your stress levels and give you a sense of command over your body and your life.”
- Individuals who exercise regularly have lower rates of age-related memory and cognitive decline than sedentary people.
- “Compared with women in the lowest physical activity quintile, we found a 20% lower risk of cognitive impairment for women in the highest quintile of activity.”
- Resistance training exercises can improve elders’ memory with known memory problems. It may also protect against the development of Alzheimer’s disease.
- Individuals older than 65 had much less chance of dementia if they exercised at least 3 times per week.
- When people are fatigued, the last thing they often want to do is exercise. But if you’re physically inactive and fatigued, being more active will help. New analysis by University of Georgia researchers.
- “Chronic exercise increased feelings of energy and lessened feelings of fatigue compared with control conditions.”
- “Nearly every group studied – from healthy adults to cancer patients to those with chronic conditions such as diabetes and heart disease – benefited from exercise.”
- “More than 90 percent of the studies showed the same thing: sedentary people who completed a regular exercise program reported less fatigue compared to groups that did not exercise.”
- When older adults with mild memory loss followed an exercise program for a year, blood flow to their brains increased.
- “Decrease the risk of excessive weight gain, which in turn makes less likely to experience symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea”.
My passion for fitness began when I was 14 years old. I naturally fell in love with training and haven’t stopped since. At 18 years I acquired my first personal training certification from ACE after which I opened my first of 3 transformation studios in 2011. I love to share my knowledge through personal training, my online courses, and youtube channel now with over 3,000,000 subscribers! I can happily say that we've helped over 15,000 people get in great shape over the years. I'm always here for my customers so if you need help don't hesitate to send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org