The Mental Health Benefits of Exercise: How Sports Improve the Brain

Had a tough day?

If you’re like me, you probably feel like the only thing you want to do right now is sit in front of the TV with a mountain of snacks in front of you.

The idea to exercise crosses your mind: “I should probably go work out.” Then, you convince yourself: “I’m too tired. I’ll get some rest and do it tomorrow.”

That’s called procrastination, and we all do it.

Older adults, in particular, are especially prone to procrastinating exercise. A research study from 2005 showed that their most common excuses were inertia, fear of falling, time constraints, and negative affect.

With aging, the will to exercise becomes weak. That’s contrary to the need for exercise, which becomes greater. Not only because working out keeps people physically fit, but also because it fights age-related cognitive decline.

If you ever did cardio, you’ve noticed you feel much more energized after the workout. You’re not sleepy and you even feel like you could do some more work.

Why does this happen? Why are you feeling more awake? How does exercise influence our cognitive skills? Does this mean that athletes are superior not only in their physical, but in their mental persistence as well?

The Science: What Happens to the Brain When We Exercise?

A protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is responsible for improving the transmission of signals within cells, regulating inflammation, and regulating the functions of the synapses.

Various scientific studies using animals have demonstrated that both acute and regular exercise increases the BDNF in different regions of the brain.

A study from 2007 focused on showing the effects of exercise of different intensity to the BDNF. The results were interesting: the BDNF levels in the participants were significantly elevated after exercise.

The level of increase was dependent on the intensity of the exercise session. When the exercise intensity was 20% below the ventilatory threshold, there was no significant change in the BDNF.

When the participants were pushed to exercise at 10% above the ventilatory threshold, the BDNF values increased from the baseline. This means that exercise improves our cognitive functions only when we increase the ventilation at a faster rate than the volume of oxygen (VO₂).

How important is this brain-derived neurotrophic factor, anyway? Quite important, actually.

Here’s why:

  • BDNF supports the growth and differentiation of new neurons.
  • It’s important for the capacity and formation of long-term memories.
  • The hippocampus, which is responsible for forming and maintaining long-term memory, is an important target of BDNF action.

Due to the fact that physical activity affects the levels of BDNF, and BDNF is related to important cognitive functions, it’s clear how the brain’s activity is boosted when we exercise.

The reasons behind the improved cognitive function after optimal exercise are psychological, too. Exercise improves your mood and psychological well-being. It reduces stress, anxiety, and depression.

Serotonin and dopamine, whose production is stimulated through exercise, influence a wide variety of brain functions of cognitive and instrumental nature.

How Hard Should You Exercise?

The extent to which your brain “awakens” after exercise depends on the intensity of the training you put yourself through.

The research cited above reported that moderate physical exercise has a positive effect on the brain’s cognitive functions. What if you go beyond the optimal point? Will there be an inverted effect?

Researchers found that physical exercise optimally affects the cognitive functions when its intensity is close to the LT (lactate threshold). That’s when you reach around 75% of the maximum oxygen intake and 85% of the maximum heart rate.

At this level, the blood concentration of lactate and lactic acid starts to exponentially increase. High-intensity exercise above this optimal point decreases the performance of the nervous system.

When the blood lactate and physical fatigue are increased beyond the optimal level through vigorous physical training, they lead you to exhaustion. In addition, stress hormones such as cortisol cause fatigue that doesn’t allow your brain to function properly.

What Type of Physical Exercise Should You Choose?

There are two important factors for successful improvement of cognitive skills through sport:

  • Intensity
  • Regularity

You need to commit to moderate, habitual physical training on the long term. Harvard researchers found that regular aerobic exercise boosts the size of the hippocampus.

This area of the brain plays an important role in the functions of verbal memory and learning. When this kind of training, which gets the heart and sweat glands pumping, was compared to balance, resistance, and muscle toning exercises, it was proven to be more effective.

A research study in Neurology showed that the individuals who had greater cardiorespiratory fitness when they were young achieved better cognitive performance during their middle years, when compared to peers with lower cardiorespiratory fitness during young adulthood.

This study put young adults (aged around 25) on a treadmill test to determine their cardiorespiratory fitness. 25 years later, the ones who retained their fitness levels by being active throughout their lives showed greater cognitive abilities.

The researchers tested several brain functions: psychomotor speed, working memory capacity, multitasking flexibility, problem-solving ability, planning, executing, critical and analytical reasoning skills, and verbal memory.

What does this mean?

When you find the type of exercise that works for you, you should commit to it on the long term. Even if you’re stressed out by too many responsibilities and personal problems, you should keep up with your exercise routine.

That’s the best way to boost and preserve your cognitive functions on an optimal level.

Your Turn: It’s Time to Take Action

Aging naturally causes cognitive decline. You’re at higher risk of developing dementia, Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases as you grow old.

Researchers showed that staying physically active throughout young adulthood and middle-age decreases the risk of developing such issues.

Even those who start exercising after reaching middle-age have lower risk of developing neurodegenerative diseases when compared to those who don’t exercise at all.

The important thing is to do something about that sedentary lifestyle. It’s not too late, but you don’t want to wait any longer.

There’s not a single type of exercise recommended as the best one. However, cardio fitness and aerobic routines are great recommendations.

It’s important to choose a routine that gets your heart pumping and increases the levels of oxygen in your body.

It’s important to exercise every single day, or at least three times a week. When you turn this into a habit, you won’t feel any signs of exhaustion.

On the contrary; you’ll be glad you’re making this effort and you’ll experience the effects on your cognitive functions. You’ll become more energized, to say the least.

Physical activity may seem like a challenging commitment to make on the long term. That’s why you should start with small steps. 10 minutes per day is not much. You can do it.

Pick an online program or join a class to stay motivated. If you’re really serious about this (and you should be), then hire a personal trainer. You can also try HIIT training, where high- and low-intensity exercises are alternated to have the best effect on your body.

Investing some money in this goal will force you to stay motivated. With time, you’ll keep increasing the intensity and length of training to achieve the optimal levels. You’ll soon reach half an hour of moderate physical activity per day.

Remember: moderation is the key. You don’t want to push your body beyond its limits. Treat exercise like prescription medication: you need the right dose to achieve the desired results. Going overboard will lead to exhaustion and decline in cognitive functions.

Science gives us proof for the case of being physically active. You might have to push yourself at the beginning, but you’ll soon turn exercise into a habit you can’t live without.


Julie Petersen, blogger and the founder of from Palo Alto, California.

[catlist excludeposts=this template="div" conditional_title_tag="h6" conditional_title="More on cognitive function, enhancement, and nootropics" id="460" tags="using"]
Click Here to Leave a Comment Below 0 comments

Leave a Reply: