Move for your mind: The connection between exercise and brain health

Salud del cerebro

by Baylor Scott & White Health


It’s no secret that regular exercise benefits us all. Moving your body positively impacts mental well-being, La salud del corazón, aging and our overall sense of wellness.

We may not immediately think of exercise as influencing our brain health. But recent studies have shown the important links between physical health and how our brains function each day.

So how does getting in your steps each day or taking a workout class positively impact your brain? Let’s look more closely at the connection between brain health and exercise.

What are the benefits of exercise for our brain?

Many of us understand the link between our mental health and exercise. Moving our bodies often gets us away from screens and outdoors, which has a calming influence on our minds and can boost our mood.

“Exercise frees us from the stress of the daily hustle and bustle, relieving the brain from anxiety,” said Francy Shu, MD, a neuromuscular medicine specialist on the medical staff at Baylor Scott & White Neurology – McKinney.

How does exercise improve our brain health?

In the same way regular physical activity keeps our bodies healthy and our minds calm, it can also improve our brain function. Jaibel Jain Makiyil, MD, a neurologist on the medical staff at Baylor Scott & White Neurology – McKinney highlights just some of the ways regular exercise can benefit your brain:

  • Improves memory
  • Improves processing
  • Improves your focus and concentration
  • Improves your mental health
  • Better sleep
  • Increased stamina

“Exercise helps our brains think, learn, remember, focus and feel better,” Dr. Shu said. “During exercise, happy chemicals called dopamine and serotonin are released and can create a sense of well-being.”

Exercise increases oxygen to the brain, and oxygen in your brain helps facilitate a process called neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is your brain's ability to change and adapt throughout your life. For example, when we train our brain to do or learn new things, such as solving a puzzle or trying out a dance routine, your brain forms new connections and reorganizes itself in response to learning.

“During times of stress on the body, such as infection, aging or feeling mentally overwhelmed, exercise helps protect the brain by encouraging neuroplasticity, increasing the brain’s resilience and capacity to adapt to these stressors,” said Dr. Makiyil.

How does exercise improve our memory?

When we exercise, blood pumps around our body. The increased blood flow and oxygen are vital to improving memory, your mental cognition, ability to focus and your attention span.

Physical activity also means that the area of the brain called the hippocampus increases in size. The hippocampus converts short-term information into long-term memory. While a larger hippocampus may not always mean a better memory, a bigger volume likely allows more connection to other parts of the brain.

In addition to improving our memory, regular exercise also contributes to preventing certain brain conditions, such as Demencia. People who exercise regularly are also less likely to experience Enfermedad del corazón and Carrera, both factors that are associated with an increased risk of developing dementia.

“In combination with a balanced diet and sleep, exercise is a cornerstone to helping to slow down or prevent dementia.” Dr. Makiyil said. In this way, incorporating regular physical activity into daily life can be an essential part of dementia prevention and management strategies.

“Exercise gives us the time to break away from stress, the freedom to relax and laugh, a healthier body image (which boosts confidence), trains our sense of perseverance, gives us the ability to fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer, and the opportunity to think more positively,” Dr. Shu said. “All of these life-changing benefits prevent dementia.” 

Which exercise is best for boosting brain health?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), even a small amount of physical activity can provide a temporary improvement in brain function. A little goes a long way, and experts agree that any amount of movement is better than none. 

Studies have shown that adults who incorporated just a few minutes of aerobic activity into their day saw improvements in their memory, planning and organizational skills.

Some examples of aerobic exercises include:

  • Cycling
  • Dancing
  • Gardening
  • Hiking
  • Jogging
  • Kickboxing
  • Walking

“We have found group exercises or dancing to be particularly helpful for brain health, as there is an element of socialization and the need to remember steps, which further stimulates memory,” Dr. Makiyil said. Not only does dance help our brains but it’s also a quick and easy mood-boosting activity that can improve our mental health.

While working out in the gym or a class can be beneficial, there are other forms of activity that boost your brain health that you may not realize.

“Doing house chores such as mopping, climbing the stairs instead of riding the elevator and even dancing to your favorite musician can all have meaningful impacts,” Dr. Shu said. “When we open our minds to consider all the exercise options, the sky is the limit!”

How much exercise do we need to keep our brains healthy?

Taking a walk outside for a few minutes or heading to a yoga class is a great way to move your body each day. But how much exercise has an impact on brain health?

“Research studies have shown that you need at least 2 - 2.5 hours of exercise each week to help improve brain health,” Dr. Makiyil said. You can break that down into bite-sized chunks to fit your schedule, aiming for 30 minutes of movement most days.

You can start maximizing your memory and improving your brain health by incorporating daily exercise into your routine. Looking for advice on wellness? Talk to your doctor about more ways to keep your mind and body strong as you age.

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