How Physical Activity Helps Brain Function

How Exercise Benefits the Brain

Mental exercise is indisputably a vital part of retaining and increasing brain function, yet it’s only half the story. More and more, we are coming to realize the benefits of physical activity for our brains, with a surge of scientific evidence to underpin this. In this article, we look into some of these studies, and the benefits of suggested activities, as well the effects of obesity on the brain.

The Right Type of Exercise


Of the two main forms of physical exercise-anaerobic and aerobic-it’s the latter which is deemed to be more advantageous toward a healthy brain. Aerobic exercise is low intensity, and can be sustained for longer periods of time. That aerobic means “with oxygen” is a clue to how this type of exercise benefits the brain. A study by the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine suggests regular exercise improves blood flow to the brain and hastens learning. Psychiatry professor at Pitt School of Medicine, Judy L. Cameron, claims, “These findings indicate that aerobic exercise at the recommended levels can have meaningful, beneficial effects on the brain.”

While an anaerobic workout is good for the body, it is suggested that those who wish to improve brain function focus on aerobic exercise to begin with. Below are listed three popular disciplines of aerobic exercise, and why they have positives effects on the brain.


The notion of going for a walk to “clear your head” is actually based in much truth. Charles Dickens often walked 20 miles a day through the streets of London in order to stimulate his mind-and clearly this worked! It doesn’t take a genius novelist to benefit, as The Franklin Institute claims, “Studies of senior citizens who walk regularly showed significant improvement in memory skills compared to sedentary elderly people.” The report goes on to say that among walkers, there was also an improvement in concentration, abstract reasoning and overall learning ability. Another study from the University of California at San Francisco measured the brain function of nearly 6,000 women over an eight-year period, coming to the conclusion that “of the women who walked the least (a half-mile per week), 24% had significant declines in their test scores, compared to only 17% of the most active women.”



New Zealand’s “Bike Wise” cites a 2001 report from the University of California that shows cycling can actually help grow brain cells in the hippocampus (the area in the brain responsible for memory), while in 2007 the Vanderbilt University found that due to the balance, decision-making skills and quick reactions often needed when cycling (particularly on a public road), there is general improvement in adult’s focus and concentration, not to mention the possibility of curbing ADHD in children.



Of all the physical exercises that benefit the brain, perhaps dancing is the most impactful. After all, having to remember all those steps and sequences, and to make them work with a set rhythm, makes it a more conscious discipline than walking or swimming. Fox News reported on a study by “The New England Journal of Medicine,” which measured the effects of 11 physical activities on decreasing the risk of dementia, with dancing the only one which displayed a positive impact. Dancing has also been shown to increase levels of dopamine, a “feel good” neurotransmitter. The great advantage of dance is its diversity; from salsa to tango, break to disco, there is a genre to appeal to everyone. Yoga and tai chi have similar positive effects on the brain too.

Obesity and the Brain


It stands to reason that while a healthier body is conducive to better brain function, so an obese body has negative effects on the brain. Obesity in the West, especially America (where close to 40% of the adult population is overweight) is an ever-growing concern that is having a secondary effect on minds everywhere. In the “Journal of Neuroscience,” researchers came to the conclusion that putting on weight could desensitize the brain from pleasure gained from eating fatty and sugary foods. Meanwhile a 2010 study presented at an American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry meeting hinted that obese children had a reduced-size of orbitofrontal cortex (the key decision-making part of the brain), which may lead to further compulsive eating-something of a vicious circle.

Perhaps more alarmingly, a May 2010 study in the Annals of Neurology journal pointed to a link between obesity and dementia, with researchers suggesting that visceral fat (more commonly known as belly fat) could play a role in reducing brain size, while previous studies had already shown that those with a smaller brain volume are at higher risk of dementia. Links between obesity and depression have often been drawn, with Dr. Floriana S. Luppino, of Leiden University Medical Center in the Netherlands, telling Reuters Health that there is a “reciprocal association” between the two.


Though You May Have Heard it a Thousand Times Before…

The phrase “a sound mind in a healthy body” has never been more pertinent. The way to tackle the obesity-brain dilemma is through much of the exercise cited in the previous section, along with a healthy diet that includes “brain foods” such as oily fish, blackcurrants, nuts and seeds. Combining this with other cognitive activities and games will greatly increase brain function, and ultimately improve your way of life.