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How exercise affects the brain

Exercise and memory infographic

Exercise boosts physical capabilities and can even change physical appearance, but it also improves the condition of the brain and cognition. BYU physiology and developmental biology professor Jeff Edwards’ research findings validate those new year’s resolutions to get the heart pumping and exercise more. He provides information on three ways that exercise affects the mind and can improve quality of life.

Exercise feeds the brain
Exercise increases blood flow to the brain. Due to its high metabolic demand, the brain demands good circulation, and exercise aids it. An increase in blood flow is not only extremely beneficial, it is essential. Exercise induces good blood flow to deliver all the nutrients required to carry out the brain’s job, while it also increases production molecules important to brain function, including memory.

Exercise secures priceless memories
People hold their memories dear, yet, in reality, we only remember a fraction of our lives. Accessing memories, writing them down, and sharing them with others helps solidify their presence in the brain, but exercising improves memory’s capacity and strength.

Exercise improves memory by increasing molecular targets like the brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). This molecular factor increases synaptogenesis, forming new synapses that mediate learning and memory, making it easier to absorb information and form long-term memories. The more BDNF, the more the memory improves in function and capacity. If you aren’t motivated to work out, consider how priceless your memories are and start moving to preserve them.

Exercise lowers stress impact
Exercise is not a direct solution to stress, but it does pacify the experience. It is important to note that exercise does not decrease stress hormones, but it does decrease the number of stress receptors in the hippocampus. Reducing stress receptors minimizes the effect of stress hormones on the brain, decreasing the impact of stressful experiences.

The phenomenon most commonly known as “runner’s high” is another stress-related benefit of exercise. Working out stimulates the release of endorphins that act on opiate receptors in the brain to create the blissful feeling of a workout high. This euphoric sensation can be felt during or after any workout and is paired with a reduction in feelings of anxiety and depression. Exercise is an indirect but effective treatment for stress.