5 ways exercise helps boost your brain

You know exercise is great for your body. But its real power lies in how it can help strengthen your mind. 

Mature woman running.

Maybe you’re logging workouts to tighten your belt a few notches. Or maybe your goal is better heart health, and you’re breaking a sweat to bring down your cholesterol. It’s no secret that exercising can help you improve your physical health. 

But your brain and your mental health can also seize the rewards of staying physically active. 

Need convincing? We’ve pulled together five things exercise can do for you that have nothing to do with your pants size. 

Benefit #1: A Sharper Memory

Those “senior moments” and “tip-of-the-tongue” vocab lapses that aggravate you? A daily walk or dance break may be a good antidote.

That’s because these common age-related episodes of forgetfulness are often the result of the brain needing to be stimulated with some action. Mental challenges, like trying to solve a Sudoku puzzle, can also help – just don’t get so engrossed in the puzzle page of the newspaper that you eat up the time you’ve set aside for exercise.

Studies show that older adults who walk regularly have better memory recall than their inactive peers, notes the National Institute on Aging (NIA). And the more you exercise, the better your memory may get. 

In 2011, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh found that regular aerobic exercise actually reversed some age-related loss in brain volume in the part of the brain (the hippocampus) that’s important to memory and learning. The result was improved memory function. 

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Benefit #2: Clearer Thinking

Getting your heart rate up pumps blood to the brain. This in turn helps your brain perform better. When researchers at the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine in Dallas asked a group of women over the age of 60 to commit to a brisk 30- to 50-minute walk four times a week for three months, they found that their blood flow to the brain improved by as much as 15%. 

Why is this such a big deal? A healthy and steady flow of blood to the brain brings vital nutrients with it and sweeps away metabolic wastes, including amyloid-beta protein, which has been implicated in the development of Alzheimer’s disease, according to the study’s authors. 

Benefit #3: Better Problem-Solving

Over time, regular workouts can help lower your blood pressure. This is good news for your brain because high blood pressure can harm blood vessels in your brain and reduce your brain’s oxygen supply. This damages nerve cells that are used for decision-making and memory. 

A team of researchers in Washington state put this idea to the test. They asked a group of older adults with mild cognitive impairment (a condition that can sometimes progress to Alzheimer’s disease) to either take up high-intensity aerobic exercise or begin a low-key stretching regimen for six months. 

The aerobic group’s results, published in JAMA Neurology, were impressive: Getting the heart rate up helped participants better organize information, pay attention and multitask. The study’s authors credit the role aerobic exercise plays in helping the body move glucose (an energy source) to the brain, which improves its function. 

Benefit #4: Less Stress and Anxiety

Adrenaline and cortisol are two of the most potent stress hormones. The more stress or anxiety you feel, the more your body churns them out. 

Exercise is a very effective way to reduce these hormones and the uneasy feelings linked to them, states the NIA. It also prompts your body to release endorphins, those feel-good chemicals that make you feel upbeat and relaxed.  

Research suggests that active people are less depressed than sedentary people. What’s more, exercise helps improve a person’s outlook and gives them a sense of achievement, according to a review in Clinical Practice & Epidemiology in Mental Health. 

In fact, research from the American College of Sports Medicine shows that, for older adults, regular exercise can be just as effective as a prescription antidepressant. 

If you suspect that you might be suffering from depression, it’s important to talk to your doctor and get a diagnosis so you can get the care you need.

Benefit #5: Better Sleep

What you do during the day has a big impact on how you sleep at night, and exercise is an effective prescription for more restful nights. 

According to the National Sleep Foundation, getting the recommended 150 minutes of activity per week leads to a 65% improvement in sleep quality. Participants in the study reported feeling more energized during the day than those who weren’t working out. 

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Discover more ways to help strengthen your brain health with Renew’s cognitive health resources. To learn more, sign in to your plan website and go to Health & Wellness. Then look for Cognitive Health in the Quick Links section. Not a member? Learn more here.

Make Exercise a Habit: Your 3-Step Plan

Are you feeling inspired to get active? First things first: Check with your doctor before starting a new exercise program or increasing your activity level. They can tell you what types and amounts of activities are safe and suitable for you.

Here are some other important tips to keep in mind as you start your fitness journey:

Step #1: Pick something fun. You’re more likely to stick with an exercise routine if you enjoy it. Think about activities you enjoyed as a kid and give them a try. You’ll probably still think they’re fun. Do you like to walk? Jog? Bike? Dance? Swim? There are a million ways to get active.

Step #2: Start slow. You have a better chance of sticking with a moderate plan, as opposed to jumping into a strenuous program. Working out too hard can actually postpone the boost in mood that often follows an exercise session. That feeling is rewarding, and without it your motivation may be weakened.

Step #3: Go easy on yourself. There may be days you just don’t feel up to exercising. If you miss a day, or can only do 10 minutes today, that’s fine. Just get back on track the next day.