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Why Your Brain Needs You to Exercise

By Alexander VanHouten, Master Trainer & Life Time Education Specialist

We are always talking about muscles in the fitness world.

Don’t get me wrong. Muscles are great. Their connections across joints to produce movement, the aesthetic appearance of healthy muscularity, and the fact that they actually burn when you exercise…I get it. But are they the only parts that benefit when we move our bodies in a way that creates positive stress?

Well, your heart gets stronger and pumps more blood per beat when you exercise. Your lungs become more efficient at exchanging carbon dioxide and oxygen[i]. Resistance training can even elevate almost all of your liver enzymes for up to 7 days! [ii] Just to name a couple non-muscles…

But what if I told you that exercise’s benefits for muscles, heart, lungs and liver are actually tiny compared to its effect on your most important organ of all? Well, the most impressive studies in the fitness world all agree: exercise changes your brain.

Why Does Exercise Matter for Grey Matter?

Our brains are amazing biological super-computers made of billions of neurons firing hundreds of billions of synapses per second. These pulses have a role in all angles of your experience. The processes of sensing the world around you, interpreting the sensations, and acting on them all pass through this organ. When you form words out loud or in your mind, it happens through this system. When you focus on your work (or get distracted by Facebook), your BRAIN is to thank (or blame!).

If this organ comprises so much of “you” in every way and controls your ability to perceive, act, and think…use it for just a second to imagine how every aspect of your life would be different if you could improve its function? Imagine how your life might be different if you could CHANGE ITS STRUCTURE!

This is precisely what an inarguable body of research is beginning to show. And the results are so astounding that a social movement is taking off to encourage the world to exercise – not to look buff, not to jump higher, not to burn calories, and not even to live longer. This movement wants people to start moving literally to CHANGE their brains!

How Does Exercise Change Your Brain?

Exercise changes the structure of the brain.

There are a number of animal studies in which brain dissection following death showed increased volume and density of the cerebellum and the dentate gyrus of the hippocampus in animals (both young and old) that were active versus those that were not allowed to be active.[iii][iv]

The dentate gyrus of the hippocampus is involved in the storing and generation of memories. In patients with neuro-degeneration it is found to be smaller and less dense. Similarly, all brain function seems to be wired through the cerebellum (the back of the mind), and patients with dementia have a smaller and less dense version than those with normal brain function. These studies suggest that exercise will not only reduce risk for neurodegenerative diseases but, in normal, healthy people, may enhance memory, cognitive function and focus.

Exercise repairs the brain.

Neurogenesis is the process of creating new neurons. In healthy individuals, it happens daily. These new cells replace old, worn out ones that are shrinking and losing connections with the rest of the brain. The flexion and extension of muscle tissue under load increases the output of all of the neurotrophic factors that bolster neurogenesis ( VEGF, FGF- 2, and IGF- 1 to name a few).[v]

In other words, movement – especially vigorous movement that requires your muscles to work hard – supplies the neurotrophic “soup” for your brain to replace old cells with new ones. New brain cells keep your brain sharp, young and plastic (a neuroscience-y way to say moldable)!

Exercise motivates you.

Exercise stops the natural decline of dopamine as we age.

When you move with a purpose, dopamine is released. This strengthens the natural pathways of motivation and motor function so that your capacity to set and achieve goals remains vigorous.[vi]

In this way, exercise will help you take on new projects and pursue them with tenacity as dopamine supports mood and motivation to start important things and to finish what you start!

Exercise elevates your ability to handle stress.

It seems that stress is not a thermostat in the body – but a switch. Either you’re stressed or you’re not.

It’s all in how the brain interprets the world around you that determines your fight or flight response. Exercise is a “positive stress” in that it seems to increase your stress threshold by making the “stress switch” harder to flip.[vii] Since cortisol reduces the connectivity of neurons, the less chronically we flip our stress switch, the better.

Also, the rush of blood flow throughout the body, including to the brain, helps to rid the area of damaging free radicals, thereby reducing oxidative stress to the neurons.[viii]

Why “Move It”?

Many of the studies I have cited here postulate that it’s not simply the exercise type or intensity that matters most for brain development. Novelty matters, too!

That is, if you’ve always done cardio a certain way, perform the same lifts or do the same classes, it’s time to change it up for your brain’s sake.

In my opinion, this is the true value of our complimentary “Move It” session at Life Time.

After a brief period of getting to know you and your body better, we fitness professionals take you out on the fitness floor and seek to challenge your body through six basic movement patterns: Push, Pull, Squat, Lunge, Bend and Twist.

Don’t know how to use ViPRs? Kettlebells? Olympic platforms? Speed ladders? Good, that’s exactly what we’ll spend our 30 minutes doing.

We obviously won’t injure you, but we also won’t be easy on you either. In order to help understand your body and brain best, it’s necessary to make things challenging both physically and mentally.

After our time together, we’ll tell you what we saw from you and offer our recommendations to get fitter in the most effective and efficient way for where you’re at and where you’d like to be.

Six weeks later, you may find yourself saying things like:

  • “I’m surprised at how much better I feel. I’m more productive at work, more present with my kids, more in the moment. Truly, it has changed everything to consistently be learning something new in the gym.”
  • “You never let me slack and are always challenging me to progress. And it affects everything I do that day. Somehow, I know if I can handle that workout, everything else today is gravy.”
  • “I just feel stronger. Not only physically, but mentally, spiritually, emotionally. Stronger.”

For the sake of enhancing neuroplasticity, increasing neurotrophic factor output, maintaining dopamine levels, reducing oxidative free radicals, cultivating a more resilient stress switch, and retaining a bigger cerebellum and hippocampus, schedule your “Move It” session today!

Your awesome brain will thank you for it.

Are you interested in adding more movement and exercise to your day? Talk with a fitness professional, who can offer additional ideas that fit your individual lifestyle and personal goals.

If you want to learn more about how we design our programs to support fitness and performance using our Core 3 Training™ methodologies

Download the Core 3 Training Manual.

Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed this article or learned something new, please share the post on your favorite social media channel.

[i] American Heart Association. American Heart Association Guidelines: Physical Activity. Updated: 19 January, 2011.

[ii] Pettersson, Jonas et al. “Muscular Exercise Can Cause Highly Pathological Liver Function Tests in Healthy Men.” British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology65.2 (2008): 253–259. PMC. Web. 11 Sept. 2015.

[iii] Llorens-Martı´n, M., Torres-Alema ´n, I., & Trejo, J. L. (2006). Pronounced individual variation in the response to the stimulatory action of exercise on immature hippocampal neurons. Hippocampus, 16, 480–490.

[iv] Isaacs, K. R., Anderson, B. J., Alcantara, A. A., Black, J. E., & Greenough, W. T. (1992). Exercise and the brain: angio-genesis in the adult rat cerebellum after vigorous physical activity and motor skill learning. Journal of Cerebral Blood Flow Metabolism , 12 , 110–119

[v]  Adlard, P. A., Perreau, V. M., Engesser-Cesar, C., & Cotman,C. W. (2004). The time course of induction of brain-derived neurotrophic factor mRNA and protein in the rat hippocampus following voluntary exercise. Neuroscience Letters ,363, 43–48.

[vi] Poulton, N. P., & Muir, G. D. (2005). Treadmill training ameliorates dopamine loss but not behavioral deficits in hemi-Parkinsonian rats. Experimental Neurology, 193 , 181–197.

[vii] Rebok, G. (2006). Paper presented on the Experience Corps project in the Cognitive Activity from Bedside to Bench symposium. American Geriatrics Society Annual Scientific Meeting. Chicago, Illinois.

[viii] Colcombe, S. J., Kramer, A. F., Erickson, K. I. et al. (2004).Cardiovascular fitness, cortical plasticity, and aging. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA , 101 , 3316–3321.

The posts on this blog are not intended to suggest or recommend the diagnosis, treatment, cure, or prevention of any disease, nor to substitute for medical treatment, nor to be an alternative to medical advice. The use of the suggestions and recommendations on this blog post is at the choice and risk of the reader.
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