The Amazing Brain Benefits of Exercise (and How Much to Move for Good Brain Health)

Here’s how physical activity is critical for improving your cognitive health.

They say what's good for the heart is good for the brain, and that's especially true when it comes to exercise. "Exercise is associated with improved cognitive performance at any stage in life," says William Nields, MD, medical director for Cognitive Health Centers in Sarasota, Fla. In fact, exercise is so important that it's one of seven pillars of brain health at Cognitive Health Centers. In other words, moving your body is essential if you want to go through life with a fit, healthy brain.

That's because physical activity induces structural changes in the brains, thickening the prefrontal and hippocampal grey matter that's key for executive function, decision making, and memory, Dr. Nields says. Exercise can also maintain mitochondrial function, which is important to your brain's neurons, since mitochondria make about a third of the energy your brain uses, and it can improve neuroplasticity, the ability of your neurons to grow and reconnect. "Neuroplasticity is important for learning new things, adapting to new situations, and overall cognitive performance," he says. Exercise also helps decrease inflammation in your body, inflammation being linked to almost every chronic disease, Alzheimer's included.

Plus, when you're physically active, the sweat your body produces moves toxins out of your body. "Toxins are an often-missed component of dementia," Dr. Nields says. Increasing blood flow through the brain as a result of exercising is another way to remove waste as well as deposit nutrients. In fact, decreased blood flow to the brain is an early marker of cognitive decline, he adds.

Exercise even increases brain-derived neurotropic factors (BDNF), a protein that's crucial for maintaining and creating neurons. Some experts have described BDNF as Miracle-Gro for the brain.

So what does all of this mean for you? Let these four brain-inducing benefits motivate you to move.

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Exercise can help prevent cognitive decline and Alzheimer's.

Exercise alone can't guarantee you won't develop cognitive decline or Alzheimer's, but it can help you stave it off. In one study from JAMA Neurology, researchers found that higher levels of daily physical activity might indeed protect against cognitive decline and Alzheimer's. Researchers note that these higher amounts, to the tune of taking 8,900 steps per day, also slowed rates of brain tissue loss, which could influence Alzheimer's risk. Overall, "exercisers are 28 percent less likely to develop dementia and 45 percent less likely to develop Alzheimer's," says Yuko Hara, PhD, director of Aging and Alzheimer's Prevention at the Alzheimer's Drug Discovery Foundation in New York City. Hara, who wasn't connected with the study, adds that exercise may even cut cognitive decline by more than a third.

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Exercise can help lessen mood-related issues.

When Dr. Nields is working with a patient struggling with depression and anxiety, both of which are detrimental to cognitive function, he recommends exercise. "In many trials, exercise has been shown to improve mood and sense of well-being," he says. In fact, one study from ACSM's Health & Fitness Journal concludes that exercise is indeed an effective treatment for depression, as not only can it help improve symptoms of depression, but active individuals are also less likely to be depressed. As Dr. Nields explains, exercise increases mood-enhancing neurotransmitters like epinephrine, norepinephrine, and dopamine.

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Exercise can make your memory better.

You don't have to wait years to accrue the brain benefits of exercise. Just one workout lasting two minutes to one hour at a moderate to high intensity improved memory, attention, concentration, and learning in young adults for up to two hours, according to a review published in Translational Sports Medicine. That's right, not only can regular exercise help keep your memory in good shape as you age, but a workout can actually make your brain sharper almost immediately.

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Exercise can improve your cardiometabolic and cardiovascular health.

It's no secret that exercise can improve heart health, but what you may not know is that by keeping your heart healthy, you're also keeping your brain healthy. "Cardiovascular and cardiometabolic health are strongly associated with cognitive decline," Dr. Nields says. The reason is simple: Your heart pumps blood through vessels all throughout your body, your brain included. With regular blood flow, you're not only nourishing the brain with the nutrients it needs, but also strengthening those vessels, which can help prevent serious issues like strokes or even a type of dementia called vascular dementia. And when it comes to cardiometabolic health, exercise can help decrease your risk for obesity, diabetes and heart disease, all of which can negatively impact brain health.

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How much exercise do you need for optimal brain health?

Exercise guidelines for brain health from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggest that you log at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity every week. That can be broken into five, 30-minute aerobic workouts during the week. Sound daunting? Remember this. "Any level of exercise is better than nothing, and although the earlier you start exercising, the better, it's never too late to start exercising for brain health as well as overall health," Hara says. If you're having trouble starting a formal exercise program, just add more activity to your daily life, doing some sort of movement every 30 minutes to keep your metabolism stoked, Dr. Nields says.

While most of the evidence for the cognitive benefits of exercise comes from research on aerobic exercise, don't discount resistance training or yoga. "Although research is still figuring out the cognitive benefits of strength training, "it increases IGF-1, which is important for neuronal growth, and has been shown to reduce homocysteine, an important marker associated with cognitive decline," Dr. Nields says. Some studies have even shown strength-training-related improvements in executive function, including planning, decision making, and problem solving. Of course, you should strengthen your whole body, but if you're tight on time, put the focus on your lower body, as leg strength is associated with higher cognitive performance, he adds. And even yoga can improve brain health, Hara says.

The most important point about exercising for brain health, according to these experts? Find an activity you enjoy so you'll want to continue it for the long haul, whether it's dance classes, swimming, jogging, running up the stairs, or stationary bike workouts.

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