• Dana Glackin

Physical Exercise: A Workout for Your Body and Brain

You’ve heard it a million times before: exercising is the best way to stay in shape and keep your body fit and healthy. But did you know that physical exercise also keeps your brain in shape?

Along with the vast array of physical benefits, exercising has many benefits for your brain and cognitive abilities. In fact, exercising is one of the best ways to improve your mood and ensure healthy brain function as you age.

Cognitive Benefits of Aerobic Exercise

When most people talk about the benefits of exercise, they focus on the physical benefits. However, more and more studies are starting to look at the positive benefits that exercise has on the brain and cognition.

Regular physical exercise leads to improvements in cognitive function.¹ Any mental activity involved with learning, memory, and communication is considered to be a cognitive function.²

Aerobic exercises, such as running or cycling, have a greater effect on cognition and brain structures than anaerobic exercises, such as lifting.³ Aerobic exercise improves memory, executive functions and enables learning.⁴

In addition, those who lead a more active lifestyle experience decreases in the amount of cortisol in their bloodstream.⁵ Cortisol is the hormone responsible for stress, and reductions in cortisol levels are associated with increases in cognitive function.⁶

Improvements in Well Being

Exercise also improves mood and well-being by causing a release of serotonin and endorphins.⁷ Serotonin is known as the “happy chemical” and endorphins are chemicals in the brain known to decrease stress. 

These chemicals that are produced during aerobic exercise are the reason for mood improvements after running and the notorious “runner’s high” phenomenon.

Reduction of Cognitive Decline with Aging

Aerobic exercise is an excellent way to reduce age-related cognitive decline without using medications or drugs.⁸ Memory and attention are just two examples of cognitive functions that become slower and less effective with age.⁹

Individuals who remain active throughout their life are more likely to maintain cognitive function for longer.¹⁰ In one study performed, subjects that exercised regularly experienced a 38% reduction in risk of cognitive decline than subjects who had more inactive life styles.¹¹

Physical activity also has the ability to decrease the risk of developing neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and dementia.¹²

Underlying Neural Mechanisms

At this point, you may be wondering how aerobic exercise causes these positive benefits. Exercising has the ability to cause structural and functional changes in the brain.¹³ We will now dig into two of these changes and their impacts: increases in blood flow and cellular communication.

Increased Blood Flow

As you already know, physical activity raises your blood pressure and gets your blood pumping throughout the body. By stimulating blood circulation, exercise delivers oxygen and nutrients to neurons in your brain.¹⁴

Neurons are the cells in your brain that communicate with each other through electrical and chemical signals to relay messages to each other and the rest of your body. They require the sugar and oxygen in your blood in order to function properly. 

By increasing the amount of circulation and blood flow to the brain, your brain and its vessels can function at higher levels.¹⁵

Increase in Cellular Communication

Physical exercise also causes the release of neurotrophins.¹⁶ Neurotrophins are proteins in your brain that are responsible for the development, growth, and survival of neurons.¹⁷

BDNF, or brain-derived neurotrophic factor, is probably the most studied neurotrophic factor when it comes to exercise. It is associated with memory and increasing the effectiveness of communication between neurons.¹⁸

Levels of BDNF increase following exercise.¹⁹ These increases are associated with growth of neurons and survival of pre-existing neurons.²⁰

There are so many positive benefits of exercise, but now you have one more motivation to get out and start running. Aerobic exercise may just be the key to healthy aging and maintaining a sharp brain. 


  1. Nouchi, R., Nouchi, H., & Kawashima, R. (2020). A single 30 minutes bout of combination physical exercises improved inhibition and vigor-mood in middle-aged and older females: Evidence from a randomized controlled trial. Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, 12. https://doi-org.ezproxy.middlebury.edu/10.3389/fnagi.2020.00179

  2. Gates, N. J., Rutjes, A. W., Di Nisio, M., Karim, S., Chong, L. Y., March, E., Martínez, G., & Vernooij, R. W. (2019). Computerised cognitive training for maintaining cognitive function in cognitively healthy people in late life. The Cochrane database of systematic reviews, 3(3), CD012277. https://doi.org/10.1002/14651858.CD012277.pub2

  3. Stimpson, N. J., Davison, G., & Javadi, A.-H. (2018). Joggin’ the noggin: Towards a physiological understanding of exercise-induced cognitive benefits. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 88, 177–186. https://doi-org.ezproxy.middlebury.edu/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2018.03.018

  4. Moriarty, T. A., Mermier, C., Kravitz, L., Gibson, A., Beltz, N., & Zuhl, M. (2019). Acute Aerobic Exercise Based Cognitive and Motor Priming: Practical Applications and Mechanisms. Frontiers in psychology, 10, 2790. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02790

  5. Sofi, F., Valecchi, D., Bacci, D., Abbate, R., Gensini, G. F., Casini, A., & Macchi, C. (2010). Physical activity and risk of cognitive decline: A meta-analysis of prospective studies. Journal of Internal Medicine, 269(1), 107–117. doi:10.1111/j.1365–2796.2010.02281.x

  6. Ibid

  7. Mandolesi, L., Polverino, A., Montuori, S., Foti, F., Ferraioli, G., Sorrentino, P., & Sorrentino, G. (2018). Effects of Physical Exercise on Cognitive Functioning and Wellbeing: Biological and Psychological Benefits. Frontiers in Psychology, 9. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00509

  8. Saraulli, D., Costanzi, M., Mastrorilli, V., & Farioli-Vecchioli, S. (2017). The Long Run: Neuroprotective Effects of Physical Exercise on Adult Neurogenesis from Youth to Old Age. Current neuropharmacology, 15(4), 519–533. https://doi.org/10.2174/1570159X14666160412150223

  9. Stimpson et al. 2018

  10. Ibid

  11. Sofi et al. 2010

  12. Ibid

  13. Mandelosi et al. 2018

  14. Sofi et al. 2010

  15. Ibid

  16. Ibid

  17. Benítez-Temiño, B., Davis-López de Carrizosa, M. A., Morcuende, S., Matarredona, E. R., de la Cruz, R. R., & Pastor, A. M. (2016). Functional Diversity of Neurotrophin Actions on the Oculomotor System. International journal of molecular sciences, 17(12), 2016. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijms17122016

  18. Stimpson et al. 2018

  19. Sofi et al. 2010

  20. Lippi, G., Mattiuzzi, C., & Sanchis-Gomar, F. (2020). Updated overview on interplay between physical exercise, neurotrophins, and cognitive function in humans. Journal of sport and health science, 9(1), 74–81. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jshs.2019.07.012