If you are not already making exercise a regular part of your life, you may be missing out on brain boosting benefits including decreased risk of depression and anxiety, improved learning and memory, lowered risks of ADHD and dementia and more.1 The benefits of exercise on heart health, muscle mass, and reducing inflammation are widely known, but emerging research demonstrates how powerful regular physical activity is for brain health.
Neurotransmitters Boost Mood, Relieve Stress
The exercise-induced cognitive improvements largely work via neurotransmitters, which are your brain and body’s chemical messengers. Endorphins are a commonly known neurotransmitter, but a lesser known type of transmitter – endocannabinoid – is also involved in boosting the brain through physical activity. Recent research suggests that the euphoric “runner’s high” following a hard workout may result from endorphins and endocannabinoids working together.1 These and other neurotransmitters at work contribute to feelings of happiness, stress release, and even better sleep.2
In addition to neurotransmitters at work, exercise can also promote the brain’s neuroplasticity which is the ability of the brain and nervous system to change in response to stimuli and even to grow new brain cells. 1 A study published in The Journal of Neuroscience confirmed that running improves new memory formation, along with increased neurogenesis in the hippocampus.2
Increased Blood Flow from Physical Activity Prevents Cognitive Decline
A 2021 study found that the blood flow that results from physical activity helps increase flow to the part of the brain responsible for higher intellectual function, sensory impulses, and motor activity, known as the cerebrum. The study concluded that a one-year exercise program increased cerebral blood flow and reduce the risk of further cognitive decline in adults with mild cognitive impairment. These findings suggest that blood flow from regular exercise can reduce risk of diseases of cognitive decline such as Alzheimer’s and stroke.1 Increased blood flow to this area also helps to plan, sharpen ability to focus, and think faster.
Additional research examined the effect of a single session of acute aerobic exercise on working memory task-evoked brain activity and task performance. Researchers found that moderate acute aerobic exercises increases both working memory and cortical hemodynamic responses in the prefrontal cortex.2
On average, only 28 percent of Americans are exercising enough according to national guidelines.2 With a nation plagued by both physical and mental illness, doctors most often turn medications before prescribing movement.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines suggest that adults should spend at least 150 minutes per week doing aerobic exercises (30 minutes per day) and at least two days per week engaging in muscle building activities.2
Sedentary Lifestyles on the Rise
Beyond designated time spent working out, the overall rates of sedentary jobs and lifestyle have increased in the past few decades. According to the American Heart Association , sedentary jobs have increased 84 percent since 1950. In 1960, about half of the U.S. workforce was physically active, compared to 20 percent now. In addition, our average workweek is longer.2
The British Medical Journal published an article entitled “Exercise is medicine and physicians need to prescribe it!” The author states:
If we had a pill that conferred all the confirmed health benefits of exercise, would we not do everything human possible to see to it that everyone had access to this wonder drug? Would it not be the most prescribed pill in the history of mankind?3
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1 Preiato D. Exercise and the brain: the mental health benefits of exercise. Healthline May 10, 2023.
2 Porterfield C. Just 28% of Americans are exercising enough, CDC says— and it’s even lower in some regions. Forbes Jan. 26, 2023.
3 Sallis RE. Exercise is medicine and physicians need to prescribe it! British Medical Journal 2009.