Get Major Brain Benefits From Regular Exercise

Get Major Brain Benefits From Regular Exercise

It’s no surprise to hear that exercise has health benefits, but what you might not know is that it can protect your brain as well as your body.

A new large-scale review published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that for people over age 50, regular exercise will improve mental function and brain health. Both people with healthy brains and those with mild cognitive impairment benefited from a regular fitness program.

The study found that strength training, aerobic exercise (what most people think of as cardio), and tai chi all improved brain function. Researchers hypothesize exercise protects the brain by triggering neural and vascular adaptations that lead to the growth of new motor neurons, while also decreasing inflammation in the brain. For example, exercise increases blood flow to the brain by helping to maintain the flexibility of blood vessels. Additionally, exercise has an antioxidant effect throughout the body, helping to counter oxidative stress that leads to cellular damage and ultimately aging.

Strength building exercises such as those performed with free weights may be particularly effective because they build new neural pathways—basically, forging a new connection from the brain to the muscle so that you improve coordination and strength. Strength training also helps to balance hormones and neurotransmitters, which can benefit the brain in a number of ways including the following:

Lowering risk of depression

Reducing stress by balancing the stress hormone cortisol

Reducing insulin and improving metabolic function

Improved metabolic flexibility to allow steadier energy in the brain

One surprising outcome from the study was that yoga did not convey noticeable brain benefits. The researchers didn’t offer a theory for yoga’s lack of effect. It’s possible the studies they analyzed had small sample sizes or weren’t designed effectively. Because yoga improves mindfulness and may lower inflammation by reducing stress, I would expect it to have anti-aging benefits for the brain, especially for serious practitioners with a rigorous routine.

Researchers recommend the following guidelines for getting brain benefits of exercise:

Although any duration will have cognitive benefits, the greatest effects were when people exercised for 45 minutes to an hour. This makes sense because it’s just enough time to get in a full body strength training workout, including warm-up and cool-down.

Moderate and vigorous exercise showed better results than low-intensity exercise. Putting in the effort to get some serious work done pays off over taking it easy.

Frequency is important. Exercising more often has a greater protective effect than going longer. For example, training 4 times a week for 45 minutes is better than twice a week for 90 minutes each. This is because exercise quality is greater and it reduces your daily sedentary time, which is a key component of brain health.


Northey, J., et al. Exercise interventions for cognitive function in adults older than 50: a systematic review with meta-analysis. 2017. 0, 1-9.