- Exercise alters the brain in a variety of beneficial ways, according to experts.
- One expert told Insider it can stimulate the part of the brain associated with memory.
- Exercise can also make the brain more resilient against deterioration as we age.
Regular exercise is one of the best things you can do for your brain.
Wendy Suzuki, a professor of neural science and psychology at New York University, said that not only does your brain experience certain benefits immediately after you work out, but years of repeated exercise can permanently alter your brain and improve your cognitive health. And Teresa Liu-Ambrose, who studies healthy aging and cognition at the University of British Columbia, said that as long as you continue to move throughout your life, exercise makes the brain more resilient to deterioration as you get older.
They also told Insider that long-term exercise was associated with more efficient brain functioning, growth in the brain’s memory center, and faster connections in the region associated with focus.
Exercise floods the brain with ‘feel good’ neurochemicals
Suzuki, who is the author of the books “Healthy Brain, Happy Life” and “Good Anxiety,” said that during and immediately after you exercise, your brain releases a “bubble bath” of neurochemicals like endorphins, serotonin, and dopamine that decrease anxiety and make you feel good.
“Endorphins do seem to be associated with that runner’s high — that happy, exuberant feeling,’” she said.
In addition to making you happy, dopamine also increases your focus right after you workout, because the part of the brain associated with attention uses dopamine to function, according to Suzuki.
Working out stimulates growth of neurons
Researchers have found that exercise stimulates growth of new neurons in the region of the brain primarily associated with memory, called the hippocampus, Suzuki said. These new brain cells then integrate with the rest of the hippocampus, making the area physically bigger and increasing your capacity for memory.
Exercise also impacts the size of the prefrontal cortex, located right behind your forehead, by increasing the thickness of a part of brain cells called axons, she said.
“The axon is covered with an insulation substance called myelin that basically makes the electrical activity through the neuron go as quickly as possible,” Suzuki said. “The more myelin, the faster it goes. That’s one of the things that differentiates humans from other animals that don’t have our cognitive power. We have more myelin, which makes our connections work faster. With exercise, you get more myelin.”
Exercise can keep your brain healthy as you age
Suzuki said the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex are also very susceptible to deterioration as we age. “So these are the two areas that you lose over time,” she said. “With regular exercise — the longer you do it throughout your lifetime — you’re building a big, fat, fluffy hippocampus, a big, fluffy prefrontal cortex. And you’re not curing dementia or you’re not curing aging, but you’re making these two susceptible brain areas as strong and powerful as you can. So it literally takes longer for aging to have its effect.”
Liu-Ambrose said that at around 50 to 60 years old, the hippocampus shrinks about 1% to 2% every year, and exercise has been shown to reduce the rate of this shrinkage. Exercise also helps prevent the spread of cerebral small-vessel disease, in which small strokes happen throughout the brain and increase your risk for dementia.
In general, Suzuki said that exercise helps form new blood vessels, which can reduce effects of strokes as we age.
Finally, Liu-Ambrose said exercise can keep the brain working more efficiently as we get older. She said that older brains often need to recruit more regions of the brain for the same task.
“After exercise, what happens is that brain can become more efficient, whereby you’re recruiting less regions of the brain, but for better performance,” she said.
Switching your exercise up might be better for your brain
Suzuki said that learning a new skill has been shown to be generally beneficial for your brain, so trying new exercises may give you increased brain benefits. Doing a new exercise, she said, builds new circuits in your motor cortex.
“If you just do the same exercise over and over, and it becomes more rote and it’s not challenging in any new way, is it better to challenge yourself and to try something harder? Yeah, it is. It will engage a larger or a different part of your brain, and it’s always good to mix things up that way,” she said.
Adding new movements to your weight-lifting routine, cross-training, or taking a kickboxing or zumba class might be a fun way to accomplish this, she said.
While aerobic cardiovascular exercise has been studied the most, she said there is no “best” exercise for brain health. Your brain will benefit from any physical activity that gets your heart rate up.
“Every drop of sweat counts. The more you work out, the more benefit that you see,” Suzuki said.