How Exercise Affects Your Brain

When you exercise, you train a lot more than just your muscles and cardiovascular system. There is much more going on behind the scenes than you may realize. Have ever completed a really tough workout, or ran a really long distance, and when you were completed, you had a “freeing” sense. Almost as if there wasn’t a care in the world. You felt accomplished. Successful. Motivated.  

Is there any wonder that you feel more alert and can retain information better when you exercise? The benefits your brain reaps when you put your body through vigorous exercise is large. The potential awaiting you is wild considering how your brain reacts to exercise. 

It can be difficult to differentiate between the psychological and biological differences at times when referring to the benefits in the brain from exercise. However, there are studies that look at the comparison between the psychological and biological benefits to our brains from exercise.  

Breakdown of the Brain 

Like anything else in our bodies, the brain slowly decreases in cognitive function as we age. In fact, “growing evidence points towards a relationship between cognition and measure of muscular strength and muscle mass” 1. This is another reasons you may see a growing trend in resistance training among senior citizens. The benefits are considerably higher, especially against breaking bones.  

As the muscles become responsive and increase in muscle strength and mass, there is growing evidence that exercise is also aids in preserving the brain and cognitive ability. To speak for my own experiences, I feel my own mind is clearer, sharper, and can retain more information as I have made resistance training a lifestyle.  

Another critical element in the fight against the breakdown of the brain is neuroplasticity. This is linked to the nervous system, “which can modify itself in response to experience”1. That means with continued physical exercise, further promotion of neuroplasticity may be achieved. 

Why Neuroplasticity is Important 

Neuroplasticity is defined as “the brain's ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life. Neuroplasticity allows the neurons (nerve cells) in the brain to compensate for injury and disease and to adjust their activities in response to new situations or to changes in their environment”4. Many physical exercise studies with adults showed structural changes such as increased gray matter volume in the frontal and hippocampal regions and reduced damage in the gray matter2 

Benefits don’t stop there. Exercise is also shown to increase blood flow and “food” (glucose and lipid metabolism)2 to the brain. These effects then transition to the cognitive functions in adults, including older adults. Physical activity could be considered one of largest stimulating, enhancing, endorphin-boosting “drug” available to us as humans.  

For further example: 

“Structural changes following PE (physical exercise) have been related to academic achievement in comparison to sedentary individuals. In this line, it has been also showed that children who practice regular aerobic activity performed better on verbal, perceptual and arithmetic test in comparison to sedentary ones of the same age. Numerous studies have demonstrated that PE prevents cognitive decline linked to aging reduces the risk of developing dementia, the level of deterioration in executive functions, and improves the quality of life”2. 

Older adults have their own share of issues with loss of muscle strength as they age. The increase in falls, broken hips, and reduced leg strength adds a huge burden to this population. However, other studies have shown a connection between increased lower body strength and cognitive ability.  

“It has been reported in the literature that higher levels of isokinetic strength of the M. quadriceps femoris are linked to better performance in general cognitive abilities and to better performance in executive functions”1. By strengthening the muscles in your legs, this study suggests that with higher leg strength and power allowed older individuals better performance on these cognitive tests.  

This further demonstrates the connection between our mental state and what Mark Bell calls the “Lessons of the Iron”. You’re using your mind in the gym more than you realize. Not only psychologically, but the from the benefits of exercise itself. The oxygen you’re taking in, the muscle you are building, and the endorphins you are receiving.  

Benefits to Your Own Mental State 

It’s no secret exercise makes you feel great. In fact, it makes you feel so great, there are studies and examples of its effectiveness to help patients who are suffering with major mental issues such as depression, anxiety and addictive behaviors.  

Exercise makes you feel good. It naturally puts you in a better mood. The sense of accomplishment is a large factor, at least for me, for training. The fact you did something difficult and came through it says something. People who suffer from anxiety and depression found similar benefits. 

For people with a history of Alzheimer’s, there is increasing evidence of exercise being one of the greatest preventors of at least early development of this disease. 

“Most prospective studies have proven that physical inactivity is one of the most common preventable risk factors for developing AD (Alzheimer’s Disease) and that higher physical activity levels are associated with a reduced risk of AD development. Physical exercise seems to be effective in improving several neuropsychiatric symptoms of AD, notably cognitive function. Compared with medications, exercise has been shown to have fewer side effects and better adherence”3. 

When you start healthy habits and maintain them, your chances of eliminated bad habits become higher. For individuals who may abuse drugs or alcohol, exercise has shown to be a strong influence for treating several addictive and unhealthy behaviors.2 Studies have shown that it can reduce and prevent behaviors such as smoking, alcohol, and gambling. Additionally, individuals who abused said substances benefited from psychologically in that it made them aware of their unhealthy behaviors.2 


Which Type of Exercise Should I Do? 

There is evidence that points to both aerobic exercise and resistance training. Each are said to affect the brain and the body in a different way. However, any type of exercise is going to benefit you. The most important exercise that you can perform is the kind that you enjoy. 

The more enjoy performing a given exercise, the more likely you are to continue doing it. The longer you do it, the healthier you become. As you become healthier, you may become aware of certain bad habits you had engaged in prior. You should also notice blood pressure, heart rate, and other positive vital signs level off or improve.  

When you start exercising, you may also begin to notice you don’t enjoy the same foods anymore. Pizza after a heavy training session doesn’t always feel good on the stomach when you’ve been giving it your all for 90 minutes.  

Start slow and build your confidence. It won’t happen overnight, and don’t expect it to. Losing weight, gaining muscle, or simply building a better body and lifestyle can take months, and sometimes years to achieve. No matter though, through grit and determination, you’ll find your body, and your mind in a much better state of wellbeing. 



  1. Herold, F., Törpel, A., Schega, L., & Müller, N. G. (2019). Functional and/or structural brain changes in response to resistance exercises and resistance training lead to cognitive improvements - a systematic review. European review of aging and physical activity : official journal of the European Group for Research into Elderly and Physical Activity, 16, 10. 
  2. Mandolesi, L., Polverino, A., Montuori, S., Foti, F., Ferraioli, G., Sorrentino, P., & Sorrentino, G. (2018). Effects of Physical Exercise on Cognitive Functioning and Wellbeing: Biological and Psychological Benefits. Frontiers in psychology, 9, 509. 
  3. Meng, Q., Lin, M. S., & Tzeng, I. S. (2020). Relationship Between Exercise and Alzheimer's Disease: A Narrative Literature Review. Frontiers in neuroscience, 14, 131. 
  4. Shiel, W. C., Jr. (2017, January 24). Definition of Neuroplasticity. Retrieved July 21, 2020, from 

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