How Exercise Keeps Your Brain Young

How Exercise Keeps Your Brain Young

It’s well known that exercise keeps your body lean, young, and strong. Now research shows that exercise has a protective effect on the brain, slowing the aging process and boosting cognition in older folks.

Regular aerobic exercise, such as cycling or going for a brisk walk, increases the size of the hippocampus, the brain area involved in verbal memory and learning. How does it do it?

Being physically active lowers inflammation and improves hormone levels in the body. For instance, one study found that exercise leads to the release of a hormone called irisin that boosts the expression of a “brain-health” protein called BDNF that promotes the development of new nerves and synapses.

The effect can be seen with a study that found that 6 months of aerobic training allowed older individuals to score better on recall, reaction time, and spatial memory tests that consisted of remembering a list of 15 random words and the location of dots on a computer screen.

Exercise also has an immediate, acute effect on brain function. In a new study in which healthy women age 60 to 75 years old performed 20 minutes of aerobic exercise on an incline treadmill, their reaction time and executive functioning improved in the 30-minute recovery period. It is believed that exercise increases oxygen-rich blood flow to the brain, which facilitates brain function.

Exercise is also linked with lower rates of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease—a benefit that is at least partly attributed to how exercise lowers blood glucose and insulin levels. Although everyone can benefit from being physically active, a regular workout routine is particularly important for women, who are at a greater risk of developing cognitive decline with aging due to the decrease in estrogen levels during menopause.

How Can You Get The Benefit?

Brain benefits of exercise don’t require a huge commitment. Frequency is more important than a long duration: Making it a goal to exercise most days of the week for 20 minutes at a moderate intensity, such as walking on an incline treadmill, will provide significant brain benefits. Going for a bike ride, a jog or walk outside, or taking a fitness class are other options.

Performing strength training is also important because lifting weights strengthens the connection between the brain and muscles, resulting in greater mobility, faster reaction time, improved balance, and lower risk of falling.


Nagamatsu, L., et al. Physical activity improves verbal and spatial memory in older adults with probable mild cognitive impairment: a 6-month randomized controlled trial. Journal of Aging Research. 2013. 2013, 861893.

Peiffer, R., et al. Effects of Acute Aerobic Exercise on Executive Function in Older Women. Journal of Sports Science and Medicine. 2015. 14, 574-583.

Willey, J., et al. Leisure-time physical activity associates with cognitive decline. Neurology. 2016. 86(20), 1897-1903.