Why Your Brain Loves Exercise

woman hiking in a open treed area

While regular exercise is great for all our body’s systems, let’s focus on why your brain loves exercise.

Dr. Caroline Leaf is a neuroscientist from South Africa. She wrote an article called “Your Brain Loves Exercise” that I want to pull from.

(Dr. Leaf has some fascinating material that shows how our thought life directly affects the health of the neurons and other cells in our brain. It’s worth looking into! She’s a Christian, so she ties-in scientific and medical evidence with Scripture.)

Exercise Improves Cognitive Function

In her book, Think & Eat Yourself Smart, Dr. Leaf says:

“Exercise potentially improves all areas of cognitive function, including thinking, learning, and memory, especially with age. In children, exercise is incredibly important for memory development.”

young woman on a trail near a big cave and creek, in the woods
Exercise improves brain health in both young and old

Here’s what happens in our brains when we exercise, especially aerobically (raising our heart rate, breathing hard):

  • Increases blood flow to the anterior cingulate cortex (the middle of our brain). That helps us shift thoughts from one to another.
  • Forms memories and ties those memories together
  • Increases blood flow to the hippocampus, improving memory and thinking.

Exercise Improves Executive Function

These benefits become more and more important as we age, because many aging folks get less and less active. Dr. Leaf links to an academic paper that ties regular exercise to healthy executive functioning. What does that mean?

“Executive functions are strategic in nature and depend on higher-order cognitive processes that underpin planning, sustained attention, selective attention, resistance to interference, volitional inhibition (i.e., automatically stopping ourselves from walking in the street if a car is coming at us), working memory and mental flexibility.”

women canoeing in two canoes on a lake in the fall—yellow leaves on the trees
Exercise isn’t limited to the gym! Add the outdoors and you get those benefits, too.

If regular exercise helps our brain’s executive functioning, that’s a very good thing! Especially as we get older.

Exercise Helps Both Directly and Indirectly

A Harvard Health Publishing article says:

“Exercise helps memory and thinking through both direct and indirect means. The benefits of exercise come directly from its ability to reduce insulin resistance, reduce inflammation, and stimulate the release of growth factors—chemicals in the brain that affect the health of brain cells, the growth of new blood vessels in the brain, and even the abundance and survival of new brain cells.

“Indirectly, exercise improves mood and sleep, and reduces stress and anxiety. Problems in these areas frequently cause or contribute to cognitive impairment.” (source)

“Exercise helps memory and thinking through both direct and indirect means.

three women snowshoeing through the woods on a trail
Don’t stop exercising because of a little cold weather—get out and enjoy it!

What does this all mean? Your brain loves exercise! It’s as simple as that.

Sometimes we focus so much on just one aspect of being physically active—like losing weight—that if we don’t experience success or don’t need to lose weight, it all goes out the window.

That would be doing our mental and emotional health a vast disservice!

why your brain loves exercise

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