What Does Exercise Do to Help the Brain?

Jun 16, 2020 | Dr. Stella Tran | @stellatran

Elderly Couple Walking

We’ve all heard that exercise is good for the brain. Research has shown that exercise can improve thinking skills, like memory and executive functioning. Executive functioning includes mental processes such as concentration, planning, and multitasking. For a great primer on executive functioning, check out Dr. An Oskarsson’s post here.  But, what exactly does exercise do to our brains to improve our thinking?

Last year, Pauline Lucas summarized a fascinating study in which participants with MCI who exercised improved their thinking skills, and showed less shrinking of brain structures important for memory functions (like the hippocampus; check out that post here). Today, I would like to outline some of the ways exercise may change our brains to promote better cognition.


This is probably the brain benefit of exercise that we are most familiar with. Aerobic exercise (the kind of exercise that gets your heart rate up) improves blood flow to the brain, which allows for increased supply of oxygen and important nutrients to the brain.


Regular exercise can stimulate the production of a protein called vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) and a peptide hormone called insulin-like growth factor one (IGF-1). Both of these proteins play a role in angiogenesis, or the formation of new blood vessels from existing blood vessels. With a greater density of blood vessels, there is more efficient blood flow in the brain.


Neurogenesis is the growth and maturation of brain cells. Exercise can stimulate the production of Brain-derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) which supports neurogenesis, specifically in memory centers in the brain.  Indeed, one study found that aerobic exercise (walking within target heart rate zone for about 40 minutes 3 times per week) led to increased hippocampal volume, which was associated with greater levels of BDNF (Erikson et al., 2011).


Neuroplasticity is the capacity for brain cells to change and adapt, including forming new connections between existing brain cells. When we learn new information or skills, new connections between brain cells are established. As the newly learned material is practiced and repeated, those new connections become stronger. Neuroplasticity is helped by not just cognitive, but also physical exercise.


These are just a few possible mechanisms among many in an exciting area of research on exercise and the brain. If you’re not already incorporating exercise into your daily routine, check out Dr. Shandera-Ochsner’s post here on how to get started.

What helps you exercise?


Kempermann et al., 2010 https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnins.2010.00189/full
Hotting & Roder 2013 https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0149763413001012
Erikson et al, 2011 https://www.pnas.org/content/108/7/3017.long
Budde et al 2013  https://www.hindawi.com/journals/np/2016/3643879/

Interested in more newsfeed posts like this? Go to the Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI) blog.

Please sign in or register to post a reply.