Brain gains – How exercise improves your brain

Proudly supported by

  Last updated February 7, 2018 at 4:30 pm

Topics:  

Neuroscientist and CrossFit-enthusiast Dr Amy Reichelt reveals how exercise can help your brain.



Exercise has a wide range of benefits for the body. It improves cardiovascular fitness, lowers blood pressure and reduces the chance of developing heart disease and stroke.


But more than just improving your fitness, aerobic exercise has a range of benefits for your brain too.


A recent study from researchers at UNSW Sydney showed that short burst of exercise after study could help you retain information better.


And there is other evidence that shows exercise can improve your memory, may help ward off dementia, and enhance your mental health.


But how does working out boost your brain? And how much do you need to do?


Physical activity enhances neuroplasticity


Brain plasticity, or neuroplasticity, is the ability of brain cells (neurons) to modify the connections that they use to communicate with each other, which allows the brain to reorganise itself.


This process is vital for brain development, skill learning, memory formation, or recovery from brain injury.


One of the drivers of neuroplasticity are chemicals in the brain called growth factors.


These stimulate new cell growth, increase the formation of synapses – the communication points between neurons, and increase the survival of neurons.


In experiments, rats and mice which voluntarily ran on a wheel had increased amounts of growth factors in their brains, promoting this process.


Animals that exercise have an increase in brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a growth factor that increases neuronal survival, enhances learning, and protects against mental decline. In particular, exercise increases BDNF in the hippocampus, a key brain region for memory formation.


Other growth factors increased by exercise include Vascular Endothelial Growth Factor (VEGF), which promotes the growth of new blood vessels in the brain.


This increases blood flow and oxygen delivery to the brain. Exercise also increases Insulin-like-Growth Factor (IGF1), a key factor in the control of brain cell numbers.


Exercise boosts neurogenesis


The generation of new neurons is known as neurogenesis.


This process occurs in specific regions of the brain throughout life, in particular the hippocampus. Newly created neurons are vital for learning as they are thought to increase the capacity of memory.


Experiments show increased neurogenesis in the hippocampus in lab rats and mice who have running wheels to exercise in, and some of these studies also point towards enhanced cognitive function in these animals. So not only does it promote more neuron growth, but those new neurons do actually make their brains more capable of learning.


In people, brain imaging studies have also found that the hippocampus is bigger in people who exercise regularly. This is important as a bigger volume can indicate more neurons, and improved memory function.


Normally, neurogenesis slows down with age, and very low levels are linked to Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. It is thought that maintaining an active lifestyle could stave off these effects, maintaining both body and brain health as we age.


Exercise relieves stress, which has multiple benefits to the brain


Your body’s immediate stress response is a burst of energy to escape a dangerous situation – the fight or flight response. But stress over long periods is damaging. Chronic stress is experienced by many people, and manifests with physical, mental and emotional symptoms.


In 2014, a quarter of Australian adults reported moderate to severe stress. Even more concerning, younger adults between 18-35 years old report much higher levels of stress and distress compared with older Australians. Stress is one of the key factors for the onset of mental health disorders including anxiety and depression.


Chronic stress has been shown to reduce neurogenesis, inextricably linking neurogenesis to mental health disorders. This also provides therapeutic mechanisms by which lifestyle changes, such as increasing exercise, may be a valuable part of treatment by boosting neurogenesis.


Stress also causes the release of the hormone cortisol, which in excessive levels is toxic, damaging and destroying neurons in the hippocampus. This has a particular effect in impairing your memory.


Gym regulars know that a sweaty workout helps them unwind and releases stress and tension that can build up across our busy lives.


Aerobic exertion can evoke that feeling of a “runner’s high” which scientists have pinned to the release of natural feel good chemicals – endocannabinoids and endorphins – in the brain. These chemicals can relieve pain and promote a feeling of blissed-out wellbeing.


But as we also know that exercise can enhance neurogenesis, there is a dual benefit to regular workouts – combatting the toxic effects of cortisol on neurons, and promoting the growth of new ones.


How much exercise is required to boost your brain power?


You don’t need to do much to get these benefits – about half an hour of moderate-intensity physical activity most days of the week will do. Heading out for a brisk walk is ideal, and it can be part of your usual daily routine like walking to work, or switching out from eating lunch at your desk to eating outside with a short stroll.



Any exercise that increases your heart rate and breaks you into a light sweat also benefits your brain.


Moderate-intensity exercises like swimming, cycling, stair climbing or dancing, even certain household chores that get your heart rate up can count!


So what does a neuroscientist do? I love high intensity interval exercise, or team training. I find the social aspect of group exercise is a great motivator for me to work out extra hard and the short intervals rapidly spike my heart rate. Plus, in no time you’re finished and feeling that post work out buzz.


Why is research into how exercise improves our brain power so important?


Research into how exercise can improve brain function is providing a way to help prevent dementia and cognitive decline. Dementia is rapidly increasing and is already a huge health burden worldwide. By the year 2050, it is estimated that more than 115 million people globally will have dementia, so changing sedentary lifestyle habits is important for maintaining a healthily aging population.


Scientists hope to pinpoint vital brain changes that occur at a cellular or molecular level when we exercise and harness them to improve brain health. Discovering these mechanisms could lead to better therapies for dementia and mental health disorders, dramatically improving the quality of life for those affected.


But there is a lot you can do at home and in your everyday life to reduce your risk, so head out for a walk, or dance around the house doing your chores – your brain will thank you for it.


Related


A salad a day helps keep memory okay


Tim vs Mountain: Neuroscience


Has human performance peaked?


How science explains professional cyclists’ superhuman performance


Follow us on FacebookTwitter and Instagram to get all the latest science.




About the Author

Amy Reichelt
Amy is a neuroscientist with broad training in behaviour, psychology and molecular biology. Her research examines what happens to the brain when it is exposed to certain environmental changes – such as junk food diets, exercise, stress and drugs, and how this changes behaviour. In particular she’s curious about how these changes could lead to the development of psychiatric illnesses such as depression, anxiety and eating disorders. Amy has written for The Conversation, The Guardian and other news websites. She really likes CrossFit and whiskey, but not at the same time.

Published By

Science and technology is as much a part of our cultural fabric as art, music, theatre and literature. They play a significant role in our daily lives, yet, in a world dependent on science, we often take them for granted. Australia’s Science Channel believes every citizen has a right, and a responsibility, to be informed, and our mission is to create programs to bring that about.


Featured Videos

Placeholder
Grassroots
Placeholder
What is machine learning?
Placeholder
Mythbusting artificial intelligence with expert Anton van den Hengel
Placeholder
Using machine learning to predict medical outcomes
Placeholder
KCLOC
Placeholder
Nature Calls
Placeholder
Mexican Fishing Bats
Placeholder
Bittersweet
Placeholder
Timelapse
Placeholder
Invisible Blanket
Placeholder
Look
Placeholder
The Anomalies: Venom Race
Placeholder
Science Meets Making
Placeholder
Spiral
Placeholder
Looking Out There
Placeholder
Protectors of the Penguins
Placeholder
Astroturf
Placeholder
Virtual Humans
Placeholder
Rancheros del Jaguar
Placeholder
Searching For Dark Matter
Placeholder
Finding prehistoric mega-shark fossils on Victoria's coast
Placeholder
The Grandfather of computers
Placeholder
James Cameron talks science
Placeholder
In Class With.....David Suzuki - The Environment
Placeholder
In Class With.....David Suzuki - Career
Placeholder
Sustainable water use with Doug Green
Placeholder
Why is Indigenous science important?
Placeholder
Vanessa Pirotta - Using drones to collect whale snot (FameLab Australia 2018 Winner)
Placeholder
Toby Hendy - Poking Plants (FameLab Australia 2018 Runner-Up)
Placeholder
Muthu Vignesh Vellayappan - Groovy Patches (FameLab Australia 2018 Audience Choice)
Placeholder
Taryn Laubenstein - The Tail of Two Fishes
Placeholder
Richard Charlesworth - Coeliac disease diagnosis can be a pain in the posterior
Placeholder
Pegah Maasoumi - Solar Windows
Placeholder
James Wong - Breathing while you hop: How do kangaroos do it?
Placeholder
Ben McAllister - The ORGAN Experiment: Shining a light on dark matter
Placeholder
Mortaza Rezae - Empowering beautiful minds
Placeholder
Zane Stromberga - Can allergy drugs beat bladder disease?
Placeholder
Working In.....Art - Astrophotography
Placeholder
What's the best way to move - springs or muscles?
Placeholder
FameLab Australia Semi-Final Highlights
Placeholder
Saving lives with platypus milk
Placeholder
Australian astronomers witness death throes of a cocooned star
Placeholder
How Australia's politicians see our future in space
Placeholder
Keeping satellites in the loop
Placeholder
Tim Flannery talks about COP
Placeholder
Tim Jarvis & Tim Flannery talk Climate Change
Placeholder
Andy's Week in Science - robo baby, university rankings, and cancer on circadian rhythms
Placeholder
From chocolate factory to surgery - the milliDelta robot
Placeholder
Andy's Week in Science: video games, low tech transition windows and a new CRISPR technique
Placeholder
Science lessons useful in Art Restoration career
Placeholder
Are drones the future of racing?
Placeholder
The future of esports according to the experts
Placeholder
Seeing is believing with artist Eugenie Lee
Placeholder
The human impace of Art Science collaboration
Placeholder
Follow your Interests in Robotics
Placeholder
Zoz on 3D Printing
Placeholder
Flavia Tata Nardini on women in engineering
Placeholder
Flavia Tata Nardini on the future of the internet
Placeholder
Explore the ocean floor and Antarctic biodiversity
Placeholder
Follow your interests in Medical Research
Placeholder
Artists on Science
Placeholder
What is Space Archaeology?
Placeholder
Follow your Interests
Placeholder
Scientists on Art
Placeholder
3D Printing in Medical Research
Placeholder
Ethical Issues
Placeholder
Problem Solving - Robotics at Dermatec
Placeholder
Problem Solving with CSI
Placeholder
Tamarah King - Earthquake Geologist
Placeholder
True or False with Bajo and Rad BONUS ROUND
Placeholder
True or False with Bajo & Rad
Placeholder
Andy's Week in Science - Cats vs Dogs
Placeholder
FameLab 2018 - Get Involved!
Placeholder
Nural Cokcetin - How FameLab changed my life
Placeholder
Erinn Fagan-Jeffries - How FameLab changed my life
Placeholder
Noushin Nasiri - How FameLab changed my life
Placeholder
Ronald Yu - How FameLab changed my life
Placeholder
Alan Duffy's Top 5 Science Communication Tips
Placeholder
A Judge's Top Tips for FameLab Australia
Placeholder
Brain Candy - Why, Why, Why Michael Stevens?
Placeholder
The Past, Present, and Future of Malaria
Placeholder
This is a video of poo pills being made!
Placeholder
Mind Games - Sports Psychology
Placeholder
Fuel to Win - Sports Nutrition
Placeholder
Fifty years since Australia beat the world to space
Placeholder
ECR Network: Talk Your Science with Alan Duffy
Placeholder
Andy's Week in Science - chimps, klompen, and clouds
Placeholder
Our robot medicine future - heart huggers and micro biohybrids
Placeholder
Six Awkward Cancer Questions
Placeholder
How do you tell if a whale is left-handed?
Placeholder
She Flies - Turning Girls into Drone Pilots
Placeholder
Andy's Week in Science - Magnetic Fabric, Cancer Treatments, and Echolocation
Placeholder
The Science of Sexuality
Placeholder
Sailing Through Space with Bill Nye
Placeholder
Using Sports Science to Help Olympic Athletes
Placeholder
Three and a Half Minutes of Top Shelf Career Advice
Placeholder
New Space Tech with Andrea Boyd
Placeholder
Kelly Meets the Mars Curiosity Rover
Placeholder
Hearts, Opera, and Tough Conversations - Andy's Week in Science
Placeholder
Bill Nye on Science, Girls, and Saving the World!
Placeholder
2017 Prime Minister's Prizes for Science Part 2
Placeholder
2017 Prime Minister's Prizes for Science Part 1
Placeholder
Who Decides the Law in Space?
Placeholder
Scientists Watch Collision That Created Gravitational Waves
Placeholder
Getting Cold Feet Leads to a Whole New Career
Placeholder
ECR Network - Why Every Scientist Should Be on Twitter - The Benefits
Placeholder
ECR Network - Why Every Scientist Should Be On Twitter - The Fears
Placeholder
Live Podcast - Life Vs Science
Placeholder
Origami Robots, Babies, and Kidneys - Andy's Week in Science
Placeholder
Namira Salim and the Zero-G Peace Summit
Placeholder
Elon Musk's Mars Plan: Expert Analysis
Placeholder
SPACE AF - Thursday
Placeholder
My Time in Space
Placeholder
IAC TV Daily Broadcast - Wednesday
Placeholder
SPACE AF - Wednesday
Placeholder
IAC TV Daily broadcast - Tuesday
Placeholder
SPACE AF - Tuesday
Placeholder
IAC TV daily broadcast - Monday
01:00:41
Placeholder
SPACE AF - Monday
Placeholder
Live from IAC 2017
Placeholder
Brew Ha Ha - Technology Rewrites History
Placeholder
Methamphetamine - Gateway Drug to Parkinson's Disease
Placeholder
Concussion, 3D BioPrinting, and The Universe - Andy's Week in Science
Placeholder
Pulsars, Clearwigs, and Pacemakers - Andy's Week in Science
Placeholder
Revolutions - The Quest to Transform HPV Racing
Placeholder
Brew Ha Ha - Hurricane Irma Blows Away Tesla's Rip Off
Placeholder
Experts React to Alcohol Industry Concealing Cancer Links
Placeholder
Brew Ha Ha - The Limit of Your Lifespan
Placeholder
The Recipient
Placeholder
Think Like a Scientist: Natural Selection in an Outbreak
Placeholder
The End of Snow
Placeholder
The Next Rembrandt
Placeholder
The Discarded
Placeholder
The Spectators
Placeholder
Test Tube Babes
Placeholder
Pangolins in Peril- A Story of Rare Scales
Placeholder
Rock Art Project
Placeholder
Pork.0
Placeholder
OWSIA (Darkened Water)
Placeholder
Nex
Placeholder
Northern Quolls
Placeholder
Dish Life
Placeholder
At Street Level
Placeholder
Custom Love
Placeholder
Adrift
Placeholder
A Story from Space
Placeholder
Brew Ha Ha - The Most Dangerous Thing in Boxing May Be the Gloves
Placeholder
ECR Network 2017 – Get Interdisciplinary!
01:27:00
Placeholder
Chris Hadfield: The Future of Space Exploration
Placeholder
Chris Hadfield: Life After Space
Placeholder
Chris Hadfield: Life in Space
Placeholder
Brew Ha Ha - Let's Make Algae Australian of the Year
Placeholder
Brew Ha Ha - Australia's Energy Showdown
Placeholder
Nine Awkward Astrophysicist Questions
Placeholder
Brew Ha Ha - There's No Such Thing as an Exercise Pill
Placeholder
National Science Week Awards Show
Placeholder
ECR Network 2017 - Grant Writing Workshop
Placeholder
Brew Ha Ha - Your 5 Step Asteroid Success Plan
Placeholder
National Science Week Forecast
Placeholder
Open Doors. Open Future. Open Day.
Placeholder
Brew Ha Ha - Lose a Little to Gain Millions
Placeholder
Brew Ha Ha - Crowd Sourcing Origami Astronaut Protection
Placeholder
Brew Ha Ha - T-Rex's Prehistoric Power Walk
Placeholder
True or False with Kale Brock
Placeholder
The Grandfather Paradox
Placeholder
Brew Ha Ha - The Hidden Heroes Tackling Mozzies
Placeholder
Brew Ha Ha - Emergency AI Assistance
Placeholder
Brew Ha Ha - Frogs Forever, Dinosaurs Never!
Placeholder
Brew Ha Ha - Australia, Let's Go To Space
Placeholder
Brew Ha Ha - Welcome to the Microbiome, Archaea!
Placeholder
Brew Ha Ha - Roos Blindside Driverless Cars
Placeholder
Biodiversity of Antarctica Under Threat From Increase In Ice-Free Areas
Placeholder
Brew Ha Ha - The Future of the Census
Placeholder
Tell Me! Brian Cox
Placeholder
Crash, Burn, Tweak, Repeat
Placeholder
Brew Ha Ha - Humans Just Got Older and Wiser
Placeholder
Brew Ha Ha - Cheers to Brain Health?
Placeholder
Gene Therapy Could Cure Allergies
Placeholder
Brew Ha Ha - iHeart Hacking
Placeholder
Ridiculology - New Hubble
Placeholder
Brew Ha Ha - Trees Alone Can't Save Us
Placeholder
Brew Ha Ha - Earth's Accidental Force Field
Placeholder
Dinosaurs on the Big Screen
Placeholder
Brew Ha Ha - Farewell MP3
Placeholder
Kids Beat Grown-ups on Pneumonia Vaccines
Placeholder
Brew Ha Ha - The Booger Conspiracy
Placeholder
FameLab 2017 National Final - Part 2
Placeholder
FameLab 2017 National Final - Part 1
Placeholder
2017 Budget Response
Placeholder
What Are Animal Weapons?
Placeholder
If You Love Both Art and Science, Be a Scientific Illustrator
Placeholder
Getting Personal With Skinks
Placeholder
Brew Ha Ha - CSIRO Email Leaks
Placeholder
FameLab 2017 Western Australia Semi-Final Highlights
Placeholder
Brew Ha Ha - New Hope for Premmies
Placeholder
Brew Ha Ha - Britain Goes Coal-Free
Placeholder
Brew Ha Ha - Naked Mole-Rats (SFW)
Placeholder
Brew Ha Ha - Easter Reminders
Placeholder
Meet Andrea Boyd - Space Flight Controller
Placeholder
Brew Ha Ha - Sperm Drug Smugglers
Placeholder
FameLab 2017 New South Wales Semi-Final Highlights
Placeholder
The Science of Fiction
Placeholder
Brew Ha Ha - Liquorice Poisoning
Placeholder
Brew Ha Ha - Crowdsourcing Science
Placeholder
FameLab 2017 Queensland Semi-Final Highlights
Placeholder
Brew Ha Ha - SpaceX Preps for Relaunch
Placeholder
Poly Cystic Ovary Syndrome Breakthrough
Placeholder
Brew Ha Ha - Surviving a Media Storm
Placeholder
Will This Aussie Team Win the Race to Create the Ultimate Malaria Vaccine?
Placeholder
Brew Ha Ha - New Dino Family Tree
Placeholder
How to fix things with Kyle Wiens
Placeholder
Repair or replace? iFixit co-founder Kyle Wiens
Placeholder
Special Investigation - No Alternative to Cancer
Placeholder
Brew Ha Ha - Raspberry Pi is Number 3 Best-Selling Computer
Placeholder
If reefs can't adapt, are they doomed?
Placeholder
Art, Music, Science, Society - Sir Tim Smit Has Thoughts On It All
Placeholder
Assembling the Best Team (according to Sir Tim Smit)
Placeholder
What's up with the Rogue Ginger?
Placeholder
Make Me A Martian
Placeholder
Brew Ha Ha - Recognising the Ethical Dilemma in Facial Tracking Software
Placeholder
Science Communication Around the Globe
Placeholder
Brew Ha Ha - Elon to the Rescue
Placeholder
Sing Us a Song, Spaceman!
Placeholder
Feather Map Of Australia Citizen Science Project
Placeholder
Tim Jarvis vs Mountain: Neuroscience
Placeholder
Brew Ha Ha - Don't Pee in the Pool!
Placeholder
Brew Ha Ha - A New Organ That's as Old as You Are
Placeholder
Brew Ha Ha - Australia's Bill of Sexual Health
Placeholder
Budget 2016 - The Science Forecast
Placeholder
Ideas Boom - What the Innovation Statement Means for You
Placeholder
Celebrating the 2016 Prime Minister's Prizes for Science
Placeholder
Behind the Scenes at Science Meets Parliament 2016
Placeholder
ECRN - Publish or Perish - A Trip Down the Ugly Side
Placeholder
ECRN - Publish or Perish with Corey Bradshaw
Placeholder
ECRN - Publish or Perish with Angela Eggleston
Placeholder
Coral Bleaching Explained: the story of Frank the coral
Placeholder
The Amazing Life Cycle of the European Eel
Placeholder
Zero Gravity
Placeholder
ECRN - Grant Writing Workshop
Placeholder
ECRN - Managing the Balance
Placeholder
ECRN - Research Linkages with Industry
Placeholder
ECRN - Alternative Careers with Dr Leigh Guerin
Placeholder
ECRN - How to Collaborate with Industry
Placeholder
ECRN - Alternative Careers Q&A
Placeholder
ECRN - Collaborating with Industry
Placeholder
Ground Control to Major Chris
Placeholder
Jane Elith - Life Scientist of the Year, 2015 Prime Minister's Prizes for Science