The Cognitive Benefits of Exercise


The cardiovascular benefits of exercise have been long-established. However, over the past decade, extensive research and studies have produced mounting evidence of the effects of physical activity on our brain’s development and growth. Here we look at 5 main cognitive benefits of exercise.

Gray Matter and White Matter Integrity:

Your central nervous system (CNS) is composed of two main tissue types: grey matter and white matter. Grey matter houses your brain’s “grey cells”, aka the neurons in specific brain regions. The white matter enables and promotes communication between those various brain regions. Therefore, your brain’s cognitive function is dependent on your your grey matter volume and white matter tract integrity.


Intense physical activity induces the production of a protein known as the brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) in the blood and the brain. This protein is responsible for the growth and production of neurons, i.e. the process of neurogenesis.

Likewise, recent research revealed that individuals who exercised regularly showed better white matter tract integrity, which meant better memory and language skills, and improved retention and processing of auditory and visual information. This also further implied that those who exercised regularly were at reduced risk for neurocognitive disorders like dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Exercise and the Memory Center (Hippocampus)

Since exercise triggers the process of neurogenesis, it promotes the health of the hippocampus – the memory center. Studies revealed that sustained aerobic exercises like walking, biking and swimming had the effect of increasing the production of neurons in the hippocampus, thus improving one’s memory and learning skills.

Exercise and Creative Thinking

A study published in the journal, Frontiers in Human Neuroscience found a direct correlation between aerobic exercise and creative thinking, stating that exercise could act as a “cognitive enhancer promoting creativity” in the human brain. Further research into this also revealed that students who were asked to walk for 30 minutes before a test scored better than those who didn’t; this demonstrated that exercise – even walking – triggered the brain’s cognitive activity.

Your Brain Needs the Oxygen

The brain is an oxygen guzzler, consuming about 20% of the oxygen in your bloodstream. Regular exercise improves circulation by facilitating the growth of new blood vessels that carry oxygen-rich blood to your brain. Exercise also increases the production of mitochondria, the little powerhouses of the cell which generate and maintain cellular energy in our body, including the brain.

Irisin: The Exercise Hormone

In the last five years, scientists discovered that exercising induces the production of a hormone known as irisin which has the ability to maintain your body’s weight, improve cognitive abilities and slow down the aging process. It is this hormone that triggers the production of BDNF (see above) and activated the genes that control learning and memory skills in the body.

While the discovery of this hormone presents a wide range of possibilities in developing treatments for neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s and dementia, exercising regularly can give your body the benefit of this hormone through a natural, healthy means.

In conclusion, exercising regularly has scientifically proven benefits for both physical and mental activity. In fact, recent studies have also shown that exercise-based brain-training games had a higher effect on cognitive ability than skill-based or memory-based games. So, if ever we needed more reasons to step up our exercise game, mental and cognitive soundness is one of them.

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