Over the years, we’ve all heard of the many benefits of exercise, which include toning up, losing weight, building muscle, heart health, having more stamina, etc. These alone are more than enough good reasons for anyone to start moving their body more.
But did you also know that exercising is one of the best things you can do for brain and mental health?
See the article, Exercise Is Mind Medicine, for an exhaustive list of the ways exercise can improve everything from mood, memory, stress, anxiety, sleep, neuroplasticity, preventing brain decline, and more. More recent science has confirmed one more brain benefit that is not on that list. Exercising actually increases your brain matter. Read on to find out why that’s a good thing.
Exercise Literally Grows Your Brain
Scientists believe that your cognitive function, which is pretty much everything your brain does: its ability to think, reason, remember, problem-solve, and more, is largely connected to the volume of gray and white matter in your brain. In fact, according to professor Hermundur Sigmundsson, at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology’s Department of Psychology:
“The keys to our nervous system are the gray and white matter”
There are two types of brain tissue: white and gray matter.
Gray matter is the outermost layer of your brain and consists of synapses, unmyelinated axons, and neuronal cell bodies. The brain gets its trademark pinkish-gray color from the high concentration of neuronal cell bodies in the outer layers.
White matter exists beneath the gray matter and is the deeper brain tissue. It consists of myelinated axons which carry signals between neurons and to different parts of the brain. So, healthier white matter assists in boosting the quality and speed of the connections in your brain. Myelin is an insulating layer or sheath that forms around nerves and allows electrical impulses to transmit quickly and efficiently along the nerve cells. Myelin gives your brain its whitish color.
While grey matter has long been attributed to the higher functions of the brain, white matter is just as important according to research. One study found a relationship between the structure of white matter and IQ, suggesting that cognitive function correlates with greater fiber organization.
Previous research confirmed that there are changes in the white matter when your brain learns something new, for instance, when a musician practices their instrument over time, when you master a new skill like juggling, or when adults begin to read for the first time. Science shows that various activities can also increase your brain’s grey matter, like meditation and fasting.
How does exercise affect brain growth?
Here’s What the Science Says
Science shows that aerobic activity, such as running, interval training, cross fit, or yoga is the single most effective way of boosting neurogenesis. Neurogenesis is the production of new brain cells. Exercise has been found to increase levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and glial cell line-derived trophic factor (GDNF), both of which support neurogenesis and protect new neurons.
Aerobic exercise has consistently been shown to trigger the growth of brain cells and new connections between them, boosting cognitive functions. It has also been associated with lower risks of developing Alzheimer’s Disease.
During exercise, testosterone levels increase which has a beneficial effect on neurogenesis as well and also buffers the effects of psychological stress. Endorphins produced during physical activity act as potent antidotes to cortisol, the stress hormone.
Exercise is consistently proving to be one of the best things you can do for your mind and body. There has been a wealth of studies confirming:
- A 2019 German study looked at the MRI brain scans of 1,200 people who also participated in fitness and cognition tests. They found that the fitter subjects had better brain health (specifically white matter). They also tested better on cognition tests.
According to Dr. Jonathan Repple, lead researcher of the study:
It surprised us to see even in a young population cognitive performance decreases as fitness levels drop. We knew how this might be important in an elderly population which does not necessarily have good health, but to see this happening in 30-year-olds is surprising… This leads us to believe that a basic level of fitness seems to be a preventable risk factor for brain health.”
- Another 2020 German study published in Mayo Clinical Proceedings followed 2,013 participants from 1997-2012. During this time they tested their peak oxygen uptake (a measure of cardiorespiratory fitness) and took MRI brain scans. Researchers noticed that peak oxygen uptake increases correlated with increases in gray matter volume. In fact, aerobic exercise increased overall and local gray matter volume by an average of 5.3 cubic centimeters.
According to Dr. Michael Joyner, co-author of the study report:
This is another piece of the puzzle showing physical activity and physical fitness is protective against aging-related cognitive decline.”
Both of these studies only looked at the correlation between brain health and fitness. Studies have also established a closer relationship.
- One 2006 study published in Gerontology had sedentary older participants do 60 minutes of cardio classes three days per week. The control group did only stretching/toning classes. After six months, researchers found that the cardio group increased both their grey and white matter.
Some research also suggests that weight training may have lasting cognitive benefits.
Any Brain of Any Age Will Benefit From Any Exercise
The brain benefits of exercise are not just limited to older brains that already may be declining. Science shows that younger brains reap advantages as well. It can be all too easy for younger people to not take brain health seriously and push off any real concerns into the future. The German study referenced above concluded that “even in a young population cognitive performance decreases as fitness levels drop.”
If you don’t already exercise, this science is motivation to take it seriously for reasons that go way beyond losing a few pounds to look good in a pair of jeans or lifting weights to grow some muscles. Exercise can actually grow your brain and help it perform optimally — at any age.
People who exercise and take care of their brains in other ways, for example, by feeding them healthy foods, getting plenty of sleep, socializing, and managing stress, are setting their brains up to be the healthiest they can be and to perform at peak levels. Exercising, caring for, and feeding your brain well enhances every brain function and gives your brain the edge it needs to succeed and for you to be mentally healthy.
I know, personally, the days that I am sharpest, most energized, and at my best are absolutely the days I work out. Going for a run, doing a bodyweight circuit, or lifting weights allows me to be mentally clearer and fire on all cylinders. If you are a regular exerciser, you may have noticed this yourself too.
On the other hand, if you are a person who can’t stand to exercise, then don’t. Don’t “exercise.” But do move your body. Here’s the good news: “exercise” doesn’t need to be extremely taxing, and you don’t have to be a triathlete. Gardening, vacuuming, dancing, climbing the stairs, walking, yard work — it all counts. The best kind of exercise for you is the kind that you will do.
As a fitness coach for over twelve years and a life coach for nine, Kelan Ern is committed to helping people build the skills and mindset they need to get into the best shape of their life – by creating lasting transformation on the inside and outside. Discover the power you have to restore your athleticism and take your fitness to the next level with Kelan’s health tips and monthly transformation newsletter at: www.elitelifecoaching.netShare this article!
Debbie, This is so important to know. And I appreciate the caveats at the end, that daily movement counts too and that best exercise is the one you’ll do!
Absolutely – sometimes we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to get an ‘official workout’ in. And while that is a fantastic routine to have, there are many activities we can also do that can support our fitness and health goals as well.
It’s so interesting to me the ideas of exercise and the impact it has on our brain. Like Sandra, I ‘m happy to hear that the exercise that works best is the one we’ll actually do. Especially since I’m more of a walker than an aerobic athlete!
It really is incredible, and my hope is more people realize just how many ways exercise can enrich their life. And like you mentioned, finding the type of exercise that works best for us is the first step.