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How Does Exercise Help the Brain?

author image Karen S. Garvin
Karen S. Garvin has been a professional writer since 1988, when "Dragon" magazine published her first article. Her recent work includes encyclopedia entries on historical subjects. She holds a bachelor’s degree in communications and is pursuing a master's degree in European history. Her interests include photography, science, history and Steampunk.
How Does Exercise Help the Brain?
Woman exercising outside has her eyes closed with calm expression on her face. Photo Credit XiXinXing/XiXinXing/Getty Images

The human brain benefits from both physical and mental exercise. Physical exercise helps the brain by improving circulation and memory, and balance, coordination and reflexes are all improved with exercise. Mental exercise can help the brain by building new neural connections, boosting memory and offsetting the debilitating effects of age and disease.

Improved Circulation

Physical exercise helps the brain by increasing the flow of blood, which delivers vital oxygen and glucose to the brain while carrying away waste products. Exercise that increases the heart rate, like running or cycling, also helps to pump even more oxygen and glucose to the brain. According to the Franklin Institute, physical exercise has even been shown to stimulate the growth of cerebral blood vessels. Physical exercise also stimulates the brain’s synapses by preserving the number of acetylcholine receptors found at the junction of muscle and nerve. Active people have more receptors in their brains than inactive people.

Improved Mood

Physical exercise helps to improve your mood because it increases the production of serotonin, a critical neurotransmitter found in the brain that is associated with good health and mental well-being. By increasing serotonin levels in the brain, exercise works as a natural antidepressant. Physical exercise also helps to reduce stress levels and anxiety. Aerobic exercise and strength training work to improve your mood. A 16-week-long study at Duke University divided 156 people into three groups: exercise, medication, and exercise and medication. Those in the exercise group worked out three times a week for 30 minutes. At the end of the study, the results showed that exercise alone was just as effective as either the medication or the medication-exercise combination in battling depression.

Learning and Memory

Even moderate physical exercise, such as walking, can also boost memory functions, learning and the ability for abstract reasoning. It’s unclear how this works, but improved oxygenation and nutrition for the brain are thought to be primary factors. Mental exercise helps the brain function better. As with any skill, the more mental challenges you take on, the better your brain will become. Word games, mathematics, and games of skill and strategy all help boost your brain’s fitness.

More Brain Cells

The human brain was once thought to be complete at birth and not capable of growing new brain cells, but a 1999 Salk Institute study showed that the adult human brain is capable of producing new cells -- a process that’s called neurogenesis. More recent studies have been trying to determine exactly how the brain builds new cells. But one thing is certain: physical exercise helps build brains. It’s thought that exercise stimulates the production of a brain protein called Noggin, which drives the production of neurogenesis and stem cells. Running increases the brain’s ability to grow new cells, and the more miles that you run, the more new brain cells you can grow.

Disease Prevention

According to the National Institutes of Health, being physically active may help to delay -- or even prevent -- the loss of cognitive function that is associated with age and disease. People who don’t take any form of physical exercise are twice as likely as active people to develop debilitating diseases such as Alzheimer’s. Mental exercises such as using your nondominant hand for everyday tasks and learning new skills can help your brain improve its neural connections and make new ones.

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