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Physical activity and brain

How does physical activity affect our brain function? Can regular physical activity help improve memory and thinking skills?

There are many good reasons to be physically active.

One of the most important is to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke and diabetes.

Exercise also helps you lose weight, lower blood pressure, prevent depression and – look better.


This article is about how exercise affects our brains – how it changes our brains in ways that help protect our memory and thinking skills.


Physical activity and the brain

Physical activity improves memory and thinking, both directly and indirectly. Exercise reduces insulin resistance, reduces inflammation and stimulates the release of growth factors (chemicals that affect the health of brain cells), the growth of new blood vessels in the brain and even the growth and survival of new brain cells.

Indirectly, physical activity improves mood and sleep and reduces stress and anxiety. Problems in these areas often cause or contribute to cognitive disorders.


Many studies have shown that the brain regions that control thinking and memory (prefrontal cortex and medial temporal lobe) are larger in physically active people than those who are not.

Even more exciting is the finding that regular moderate-intensity cardio exercise is associated with increased volume in certain brain regions.

A study at the University of British Columbia found that regular aerobic exercise increases the size of the hippocampus (an area of the brain associated with verbal memory and learning). Strength/resistance training, balance and muscle toning exercises did not have the same results.


This finding (that physical activity stimulates brain activity) is very important because, according to the World Health Organisation, 35.6 million people currently have dementia and by 2050, the number could reach 115 million.


How can physical activity improve brain function?

Physical activity benefits brain function by influencing various physiological processes that contribute to cognitive health and mental well-being:

  1. Physical activity increases heart rate and blood flow throughout the body, including the brain. This increased blood flow delivers more oxygen and nutrients to brain cells, boosting their metabolism and overall function.
  2. Physical activity stimulates the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor BDNF (a protein that promotes neuron growth, survival and differentiation). BDNF plays a crucial role in neurogenesis – the process of new neuron formation in the brain, especially in the hippocampus.
  3. Physical activity improves synaptic plasticity – the ability of neurons to form and strengthen interconnections (synapses). This process is the basis of learning and memory as it facilitates the transmission of electrical signals between neurons and promotes the formation of new neural circuits.
  4. Physical activity increases the release of neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine, which are linked to mood regulation, stress response and cognitive function. These neurotransmitters play an important role in attention, motivation and emotional well-being.
  5. Regular physical activity is associated with structural changes in the brain, including an increase in grey matter in areas related to motor control, executive functions and memory. Physical activity also improves white matter integrity and connectivity between brain regions, facilitating efficient communication in neural networks.
  6. Physical activity has neuroprotective effects that help protect brain health and reduce the risk of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. Physical activity can also reduce oxidative stress, inflammation and neuronal damage, preserving cognitive function and delaying age-related cognitive decline.
  7. Physical activity stimulates the release of endorphins (neurotransmitters that act as natural painkillers and mood enhancers). Regular physical activity is associated with reduced symptoms of anxiety and depression, greater resilience to stress and better general psychological well-being, which in turn contributes to optimal brain function.
  8. Physical activity is associated with improvements in various cognitive functions such as attention, memory, executive functions and information processing speed. Regular physical activity can improve cognitive flexibility, creativity and problem-solving abilities.

How to boost brain function?

Start exercising!

We don’t know exactly which exercises are best.


We do know that they are aerobic exercises that make the heart work harder and breathe faster.

In other words – cardio, like brisk walking, cycling, playing tennis, dancing, etc.


How much exercise is needed to boost memory?

120 minutes of moderate per week is a good start.

Ideally, at least half an hour of moderate-intensity workout every day.

If you don’t want to walk, consider other moderate-intensity exercises such as swimming, climbing stairs, squash or dancing. Don’t forget that housework also counts as moderate-intensity exercises, such as vigorously sweeping the floor, raking leaves, and anything else that gets your heart pumping and you sweating easily.

If you find it difficult to start exercising alone:

  • Join a group fitness class or work out with a friend.
  • Track your progress – the more you achieve, the more motivated you will be to keep going.
  • If you can, hire a personal trainer to help you progress faster.

Whatever exercises and motivators you choose, try to make exercise a habit, almost like having a prescription medicine. After all, exercise is medicine too, and if you keep your body toned, you will likely find that other medicines will be less and less necessary.


Key takeaways

Physical inactivity is a global problem.

Here are some facts:

  1. Physical activity contributes to the prevention and treatment of non-communicable diseases such as cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes. It improves general well-being, significantly reduces symptoms of depression and anxiety, and improves thinking, learning and reasoning skills.
  2. On average, one in three women and one in four men worldwide do not get enough physical activity to maintain their health.
  3. Around 2 million people die each year due to physical inactivity.
  4. People who are not physically active have a 20% to 30% higher risk of death than people who exercise enough.
  5. More than 80% of adolescents are insufficiently physically active.
  6. In high-income countries, physical activity levels are almost twice as low as in low-income countries.

In other words, if we want to keep our bodies fit and strong, our spirits strong and our minds clear, we need to move.

Walking at least 10,000 steps a day is the easiest way to keep fit.


Make sure you buy a sports watch or install a step-counting app on your phone so you know how many steps you’re actually taking.


Eat a tasty and balanced, move and – stay healthy!

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