We all know that exercise does the body good, but did you know it also works wonders for the brain? Turns out, working up a sweat has a positive impact on what’s happening inside your head—and the benefits are major, ranging from improved memory and increased focus to a better ability to manage stress. “We have about 30 years of solid research that demonstrates—there’s no debate—that aerobic exercise is good for brain function,” says Karen Postal, Ph.D., ABPP-CN, clinical instructor of neuropsychology at Harvard Medical School. “The key is getting your heart rate up, which triggers a few different things that have been proven to help your brain work better.”
So what, exactly, happens to your brain when you exercise? Dr. Postal broke it down for us.
New Brain Cells Spring to Life
If you thought you were born with a finite number of brain cells and that’s it, you’re not alone—it’s a common misconception. “Throughout our lifespan, new brain cells are born,” explains Dr. Postal. “There’s only one thing we know for sure that triggers this, and that’s exercise. Plus, they’re born primarily in one area of the brain, the hippocampus, which is responsible for forming new memories. It’s a wonderful side effect.” Essentially, the more you move, the more your memory will improve. It’s a major win-win, and motivation for the next time you’re feeling fatigued in class—just think of all the brain cells you’re creating!
Your Brain Simply Works Better
“The second thing that happens when you’re engaged in aerobic activity is that the frontal lobe of your brain lights up, and starts working harder and more effectively,” says Dr. Postal. “This part of your brain is responsible for focusing, organizing information, time management, problem solving, regulating your mood and stress, and so much more. It’s like a little CEO in there, and when you exercise, it immediately activates. There’s also this really lovely halo that happens so it continues to be activated for several hours after.”
Connections in Your Brain Grow
As if helping our brains work faster and stronger wasn’t enough, exercise also plays a role in memory creation. “Every time you exercise, a chemical called BDNF is released, which leads directly to brain cells binding to one another,” Dr. Postal explains. “We can then think better because our capacity to make connections is literally improved. It’s another piece of the puzzle of why exercising helps us be better at remembering things that happened that day and the next. It’s also one of the reasons that it’s a protective factor for diseases of the brain.”
And the best news? It’s never too late to start seeing the brain benefits of exercise.
“Whether you start when you’re 30 or when you’re 60, you begin immediately improving your brain function and reducing the likelihood of diseases like dementia,” says Dr. Postal. “It’s very hopeful. It works for kids, it works for adults, and it’s something we should focus on until we’re 99.”
Take Five: Three Exercise You Can Break Out Any Time
Don’t have time for a full workout today? You can still boost your brain power by moving your body, even just for a few minutes at a time. Here are some moves that take almost no time but deliver big impact:
- BREATHE. Standing in Primary Posture, with your feet hip distance apart, inhale as you raise your hands to the sky; then exhale, folding your upper body over your legs and dropping your arms toward your feet, as you round your back and bend your knees slightly. Repeat several times.
- SUMO SQUATS. Stand with your feet a little wider than hip-distance apart, toes pointed to 11:00 and 1:00 on an imaginary clock. With your hands in prayer, drop your seat back, making sure your knees stay directly above your ankles. As you come to standing, extend your arms down and push your palms back. Repeat several times.
- HORSE POSE WITH A SIDE-BODY REACH. Stand in Horse Pose, feet a little wider than Sumo position and toes pointed to 10 and 2 o’clock. With your hands on your hips, squat down, dropping your seat and making sure your knees stay directly over your ankles and are aligned with your outer two toes (if your knees start to buckle inward, take a position closer to Sumo). As you rise back to standing, channel your glutes to help you lean your upper body to one side and lift the opposite arm over your head. You want to be gentle with your spine here, so be sure you’re leaning from your upper torso, not from your low-back. As you go back to your Horse Pose squat, bring your upper body back to neutral, with your hands on your hips.