The Brain-Boosting Power of Exercise

In this blog, we’ll explore the fascinating connection between exercise and brain health and provide some tips on how you can take advantage of this research to sharpen your mind and protect your brain.

9 min read

Health & Wellness

The Brain-Boosting Power of Exercise

Exercise is a powerful tool, maybe the most powerful tool, in improving overall well-being. With overwhelming evidence supporting this statement, it is hard to argue against it. Exercise has been shown to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and all forms of cancer, help manage diabetes and weight loss, and of course improve strength and endurance. Recent research has shown that exercise can also have tremendous benefits for brain health. From enhancing cognitive function to reducing the risk of neurodegenerative disease to delaying the onset of symptoms from such diagnoses, regular physical activity has expanded its positive health impact to include the brain. In this blog, we’ll explore the fascinating connection between exercise and brain health and provide some tips on how you can take advantage of this research to sharpen your mind and protect your brain.


The Brain & Exercise Connection

Enhanced Cognitive Function

One of the most well-documented brain health benefits of exercise is its ability to enhance cognitive function. Numerous studies have shown that engaging in regular physical activity can improve various aspects of cognitive performance, including memory, attention, and executive function. Exercise increases the production of neurochemicals such as dopamine and serotonin, which are known to play a key role in cognitive function. Additionally, exercise promotes the growth of new neurons and strengthens existing neural connections, leading to improved brain function over time.(1)


Reduced Risk and Management of Cognitive Decline

As we age, our brains undergo changes that can lead to cognitive decline and an increased risk of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. However, research has shown that staying physically active can help protect against these age-related declines in brain function(2). Individuals who engage in regular exercise can maintain brain mass and build cognitive reserve resulting in slower rates of cognitive decline and reduced risk of developing dementia later in life. The neuroprotective effects of exercise are thought to be due to its ability to promote neuroplasticity, reduce inflammation, and enhance blood flow to the brain.


Improved Mood and Mental Well-being

In addition to its cognitive benefits, exercise is also known to positively impact mood and mental well-being. Physical activity stimulates the release of endorphins, neurotransmitters often referred to as "feel-good" chemicals because they induce feelings of happiness and euphoria. Regular exercise has been shown to reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety, improve self-esteem, and enhance overall psychological well-being. A recent study even claims that exercise is 1.5 times more effective than counseling or the leading medications for depression and anxiety(3).

I would never tell anyone to stop therapy or medication that is helping them through a mental health issue, but I do think exercise deserves to be a part of the conversation. Furthermore, the social aspect of exercise, such as participating in group fitness classes or team sports, can provide opportunities for social interaction and support, which are important for mental health.


Enhanced Brain Plasticity

Brain plasticity, or the brain's ability to adapt and change in response to experience, is a fundamental mechanism underlying learning and memory. Exercise has been found to enhance brain plasticity by promoting the growth of new neurons and strengthening neural connections(4). As a result, individuals who exercise regularly may experience improved learning abilities, better memory retention, and faster cognitive processing.


Brain Boosting Exercises

You may be asking yourself: Are there particular exercises that are better than others? Great question! Certain types of exercises can promote specific benefits, but the good news is regular physical activity, regardless of the type, will support brain health. But since you asked, let’s share those specific benefits anyway 😊!



Cardiovascular exercise, such as running and cycling, increases the heart's capacity to transport oxygen throughout the body including the brain. This results in increased brain volume with a boost in the number of blood vessels and synapses(2,5). There is also support for an increase in the white and gray matter of the brain. White matter is understood to connect different regions of the brain and is especially important for memory, while grey matter helps in processing information(6).


Strength Training

Studies have shown that resistance training can protect the health of the hippocampus (our memory maker) in individuals with Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI) and improve executive function. When you lift weights properly there is a lot of thought involved in maintaining proper form and performing each step of the exercise in the correct order. This thought process alone will exercise the neural circuits in your brain(7).


Patterned Movement

Patterned Movement is like choreography without the dance requirement. Learning choreography is great for your brain health as you are learning something new both mentally and physically; however, if you’re like me and lack rhythm and finesse, then you may find taking a dance class is difficult(8). Combining different strength and cardio exercises in a specific pattern can have a similar impact as choreography. This is what I like to call patterned movement. In my experience working with older adults and running gyms dedicated to training both brain and body, patterned movements were a key element in our training program. If you are interested in trying patterned movement, I invite you to check out my brand-new Age Well Course: Brain Health on the SunnyFit® App.



Boxing has become a popular exercise regimen for people who are battling Parkinson’s disease. Parkinson’s disease can cause issues with gait and balance. Boxing training with or without kicking has been shown to improve gait, balance, and quality of life(9). Another interesting fact about boxing is that many of the punching patterns cross the midline of the body. The action of crossing the midline of the body forces both hemispheres of the brain to work simultaneously, which is believed to develop higher order thinking skills, improve body awareness, and increase critical thinking skills.



Practicing mindfulness has many health benefits but is typically used in therapy practices to promote greater awareness and acceptance of one’s thoughts, feelings, and experiences(10). Mindfulness has the potential to also influence a person’s adherence to physical activity or other health behavior which only enhances its impact on brain health. Lucky for you, the SunnyFit® App also includes meditations by both mental health and yoga experts to help you alleviate stress, increase body awareness, and encourage you to keep your body moving!

Wow, that was a lot about the brain and exercise. I hope you stuck with me through all of that and are encouraged to start or keep up with your current fitness routine!


Why I love Exercise!

As a gerontologist, I am a big fan of the first director of the National Institute of Aging, Robert Butler. He was an amazing advocate for older adults and even won a Pulitzer Prize for his book, Why Survive? Being Old in America (1975). He is quoted as saying, “If exercise could be packaged as a pill, it would be the single most widely prescribed and beneficial medicine in the nation.” And he is right! He demonstrated that many of the stereotypes attributed to aging were the result of disease or social adversity. The main reason I bring this up is to share that aging does not have to be something we fear. We have a lot more control over how we age than we may believe, and exercise is the not-so-secret key to a healthy lifespan.

So, the next time you lace up your sneakers or roll out your yoga mat, remember that you're not just doing your body a favor – you're also giving your brain a powerful boost. Incorporating regular exercise into your routine is one of the best investments you can make for your long-term brain health and overall quality of life.


Brain-Boosting Power of Exercise Infographic
Brain-Boosting Power of Exercise Infographic


1. Mitchell, J. J., Blodgett, J. M., Chastin, S. F., Jefferis, B. J., Wannamethee, S. G., & Hamer, M. (2023). Exploring the associations of daily movement behaviours and mid-life cognition: a compositional analysis of the 1970 British Cohort Study. J Epidemiol Community Health. Accessed 25 March 2024.
2. Raji, C. A., Meysami, S., Hashemi, S., Garg, S., Akbari, N., Ahmed, G., Chodakiewitz, Y. G., Nguyen, T. D., Niotis, K., Merrill, D. A., & Attariwala, R. (2023). Exercise-Related Physical Activity Relates to Brain Volumes in 10,125 Individuals. Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, Preprint (Preprint), 1–11. Accessed 25 March 2024.
3. Exercise more effective than medicines to manage mental health, study shows. (n.d.).
ScienceDaily. Retrieved March 20, 2024, Received from Accessed 25 March 2024.
4. Konopka, L. M. (2015). How exercise influences the brain: a neuroscience perspective. Croatian Medical Journal, 56(2), 169–171. Accessed 25 March 2024.
5. Gomes-Osman, J. (2018, May 2). What kinds of exercise are good for brain health? - Harvard Health Blog. Harvard Health Blog. Accessed 25 March 2024.
6. Colcombe, S. J., Erickson, K. I., Scalf, P. E., Kim, J. S., Prakash, R., McAuley, E., Elavsky, S., Marquez, D. X., Hu, L., & Kramer, A. F. (2006). Aerobic exercise training increases brain volume in aging humans. The journals of gerontology. Series A, Biological sciences and medical sciences, 61(11), 1166–1170. Accessed 25 March 2024.
7. Levine, H. (2022, March 2). 5 Brain Exercises That Can Keep Your Mind Sharp. AARP. Accessed 25 March 2024.
8. Klimova, B., Valis, M., & Kuca, K. (2017). Dancing as an Intervention Tool for People with Dementia: A Mini-Review Dancing and Dementia. Current Alzheimer research, 14(12), 1264–1269. Accessed 25 March 2024.
9. Domingos, J., Godinho, C., & Bloem, B. R. (2022). Boxing with and without Kicking Techniques for People with Parkinson’s Disease: An Explorative Pilot Randomized Controlled Trial. Journal of Parkinson's Disease, 12(8), 2585-2593. Accessed 25 March 2024.
10. Masha Remskar, Western, M., Osborne, E. L., Maynard, O., & Ainsworth, B. (2024). Effects of
combining physical activity with mindfulness on mental health and wellbeing: Systematic review of complex interventions. Mental Health and Physical Activity, 26, 100575–100575. Accessed 25 March 2024.


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