The physical benefits of exercise are enormous, but don’t just hit the gym for your body. Do it for your brain, too. In the same way that honoring your evolutionary heritage can improve physical health, it can also give your brainpower a serious leg up. If you’ve ever felt more clear-headed or energetic after a hard workout, it’s not just your imagination. Exercise really does “clear out the cobwebs” and improve your mental clarity and brain function – especially if you pair it with a healthy diet.
Exercise and Brainpower
“Cognitive function” is the technical term, but most of us think of it more simply as brainpower: the ability tolearn new things, remember them, solve puzzles, connect the dots, or just feel clear-headed, without that muggy, exhausting “brain fog” feeling.
If that all sounds pretty good, then you’ll definitely want to be getting sweaty on a regular basis.
For one thing, exercise increases levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a type of protein called a neurotrophin. Neurotrophins support neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to adapt to its environment. When you learn something new, that’s neuroplasticity in action. In other words, exercise helps you learn things more easily.
Exercise can even change the physical structure of your brain. In this study, children with greater physical fitness had greater volume in their hippocampus (part of the brain associated with memory and spatial awareness). Of course, associations always have to be taken with a grain of salt: for example, children who are more physically fit are probably also wealthier, on average, and they probably also eat better, which could have a huge effect on brain function.
But in this case, there’s evidence that the exercise itself is at least partly responsible: for example, this studyfound in a randomized intervention trial that aerobic exercise did increase hippocampal volume in older adults. This study (another randomized intervention trial) found the same thing in women specifically, especially for aerobic training (yet another reason why cardio isn’t that bad).
This study also found that children with a higher level of physical fitness had larger dorsal striata. The dorsal striatum is an area of the brain important for making decisions and balancing rewards (like, say, the reward you’d get immediately from a cupcake vs. the reward you’d get down the line from making a healthier choice).
Finally, exercise can actually provide your brain with more of the fuel it needs to do its job, by increasing the number of mitochondria. Mitochondria supply fuel to your cells, so more mitochondria means more “gas in the tank” and a greater ability to work harder and faster.
Exercise is most famous for creating new mitochondria in muscle cells, but your brain has mitochondria, too, and exercise increases the number. This has exactly the effect you’d expect: greater power production in the brain increases cognitive function, or in other words, you think better.
Considering all of that, is it any surprise that exercise has a track record of boosting grades? This studyfound that aerobic exercise was associated with a higher GPA among college students. This one found that increased physical activity was associated with higher academic performance in school children (grades 5 and 9).
It’s not just for the students, though. This study found that even one bout of aerobic exercise improved scores on a test of memory, reasoning, and planning. And even though everyone tells you not to skimp on sleep for the sake of the gym, if you have to short your rest for some other reason, a workout might help make up for it: in this study, exercise helped reduce the effects of sleep deprivation on cognitive function.
Most of these trials used aerobic training, although high-intensity interval training works too: this study found that a single bout of high-intensity exercise improved attention and memory.