When I was about to turn 40, I started working out regularly after years of inactivity. As I sweated my way through cardio, weights, and dance classes, I noticed that exercise wasn’t just changing my body. It was also profoundly transforming my brain—for the better.
The immediate effects of exercise on my mood and thought process proved to be a powerful motivational tool. And as a neuroscientist and workout devotee, I’ve come to believe that these neurological benefits could have profound implications for how we live, learn and age as a society.
Let’s start with one of the most practical immediate benefits of breaking a sweat: exercise combats stress. Exercise is a powerful way to combat feelings of stress because it causes immediate increases in levels of key neurotransmitters, including serotonin, noradrenalin, dopamine and endorphins, that are often depleted by anxiety and depression. That’s why going for a run or spending 30 minutes on the elliptical can boost our moods immediately—combatting the negative feelings we often associate with chronic stressors we deal with every day.
In my lab, we have also demonstrated that exercise improves our ability to shift and focus attention. Even casual exercisers will recognize this effect. It’s that heightened sense of focus that you feel right after you’ve gotten your blood flowing, whether it be a brisk walk with the dog or a full-on Crossfit workout. These findings suggest that if you have a big presentation or meeting where you need your focus and attention to be at its peak, you should get in a workout ahead of time to maximize those brain functions.
But my favorite neuroscience-based motivation for exercise relates to its effects on the hippocampus—a key brain structure that’s critical for long-term memory. We all have two hippocampi: one on the right side of the brain and the other on the left. The hippocampus is unique because it is one of only two brain areas where new brain cells continue to be generated throughout our lives, a process called adult hippocampal neurogenesis.
Studies in rodents demonstrated that increased levels of physical exercise can result in improved memory by enhancing both the birth rate and the survival of new hippocampal brain cells. Exercise encourages the long-term growth of hippocampal cells by immediately increasing levels of a key growth factor in the hippocampus called Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF. Now, when I exercise, I imagine BDNF levels surging in my hippocampi, encouraging all those new hippocampal cells to grow.
All this should serve as a powerful motivator for regular physical activity. But the immediate and long-term benefits of exercise on the brain have even bigger implications.
Just consider how the educational system might be altered if we acknowledge exercise’s ability to brighten our mood, decrease stress, and improve our attention span and memory. The growing evidence that exercise improves these key brain functions should encourage schools around the world to increase—not decrease—students’ physical activity. Not only would this help students to better absorb everything from history lessons to chemistry experiments, they’d be a lot happier too.
The positive brain-based effects of exercise for education are just as relevant for very young children. The growing popularity of outdoor preschools are a promising sign that this message is starting to get through.
These brain effects of exercise also have implications for our search for that magic “smart” pill we hope will make us more productive, successful, and—if you believe the Bradley Cooper film “Limitless”—a lot sexier as well. What if the real magic does not come in the form of a pill, but in the form of an exercise regimen?
That’s exactly what the neuroscience research suggests. In fact, my lab is focusing on identifying how we can use exercise to optimize brain function for people of all ages, fitness levels and abilities. If regular exercise becomes routine for the vast majority of children and adults, we could have a population that’s not only healthier and less stressed, but also more productive.
The good news doesn’t end there. Recent findings have suggested that the brain’s hippocampus is also involved in giving people the ability to imagine new situations. Since we know that exercise enhances the birth of new hippocampal brain cells and can improve memory function, this discovery suggests that exercise might be able to improve the imaginative functions of the hippocampus as well.
This idea has not yet been tested in people. But the hypothesis raises the exciting possibility that exercise could make students more imaginative at school and adults more creative at work, with broad benefits for society as a whole.
It is also worth noting one of the most profound long-term benefits of exercise on the brain. That is, the longer and more regularly you exercise through your life, the lower your chances are of suffering from cognitive decline and dementia as you age. Part of this effect can be attributed to the build-up in the numbers of healthy young hippocampal cells as you exercise over the years.
Granted, this is a very long-term benefit that may not be seen for decades to come. But if more people were to join the gym this month and actually stick to it, more of us will be able to avoid debilitating cognitive decline, which could save society billions of dollars as we enter old age. This problem is even more relevant for countries with particularly large aging populations, including the US, Japan and Germany.
In these ways, neuroscience gives us a framework to understand exercise as a tool for better education, increased productivity in the workforce and combating cognitive decline. It’s time for us to stop using the looming prospect of beach season as the motivation for exercise—and instead shift the conversation to a discussion about how staying active can change the way we live.
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