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Exercise and Your Brain

The Brain-Changing Benefits of Exercise

What's the most transformative thing you can do for your brain today? "Exercise!" says neuroscientist Wendy Suzuki. Physical activity has many benefits for all aspects of wellbeing. Here we will focus on what it does for you intellectual wellbeing. 

Webinar Highlights:

  • gain better attention skills
  • A single bout of exercise improves your reaction time. 
  • Grow new brain cells in the hippocampus with exercise!

Spark Your Interest for Physical Activity

In a book called, "Spark," by Dr. John Ratey (MD) you can discover how exercise improves mental health and learning. Here, we'll focus on the miracle grow affects that exercise has on your brain. 

The Messengers

When we learn something cells morph in order to encode the new information, meaning the memory actually changes the architecture of your brain! The brain isn't stiff. Instead, it's adaptable and malleable, just like your muscles ability to be sculpted with weights.

About 80% of the signaling in the brain is conducted by 2 neurotransmitters:

  • glutamate: starts brain activity, the "workhorse"
  • GABA: halts or slows brain activity

 Other neurotransmitters in the brain are known as regulators of the above chemicals because they can override other signals and lower "noise" in the brain. These transmitters are:

  • Seretonin: the "policeman" of the brain (controls activity)
  • Norepinephrine: amplifies signals that influence attention, perception, motivation, and arousal
  • Dopamine: learning, reward, attention, and movement


Another important class of brain chemicals, known as factors, are also influenced by exercise.
Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) acts as the "miracle grow" for your brain, and is also found in many areas, including the hippocampus (responsible for memory and learning). Learning requires making stronger connections between neurons, known as long-term potentiation (LTP).

How It Works

When you exercise, especially if the movement requires complex movement, you're also exercising your brain and causing signals to fire along the same network of cells, solidifying their connections.

Dr. Cotman, studied to see what causes older adults to hold up mentally for so long. The three things that those with the least cognitive decline shared in common were:

  • education
  • self-efficacy
  • exercise!

Exercise also improves the rate at which learning occurs.

In 2007, German scientists found that people learned vocabulary 20% faster AFTER exercise compared to BEFORE. This difference in learning speed directly correlated to levels of BDNF.
BDNF gathers in reserve near synapses but is unleashed when we exercise. Other important factors that are enhanced by exercise are IGF-1, FGF-2, and VEGF. These factors work with BDNF to crank up learning.


So How Much Exercise Does It Take To Get These Benefits?

Pretty much anything, as long as it elevates your heart rate. You can't learn tough material DURING high intensity exercise because blood flow is restricted from the prefrontal cortex, but after exercise blood flow returns back to the brain and leaves you more focused than ever.
In 2007 a study showed that even just 35 minutes at 60-70% max heart rate on a treadmill cognitive flexibility improved.

If you want a visual explanation of the above, check out this video by crash course!