A man and woman jog outside. It appears warm outside.
Researchers recommend exercising about 150 minutes each week, including some strength-training exercises. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

New studies continue to add credence to the critical link between good brain health and regular exercise.

A recent study by researchers in Texas, for instance, published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, found an association between higher levels of cardiorespiratory fitness and better “fiber integrity” in the brain’s white matter.

This correlated to better “executive function performance” in patients with mild cognitive impairment, according to the study.

These types of contemporary findings abound, with researchers perpetually seeking to understand the connections between brain health and physical activity.

What we do know is that physical activity is proven to reduce stress, improve mood, increase self-confidence, improve memory, reduce symptoms of depression and reduce the incidence of Alzheimer’s disease by up to 50 percent.

But what’s really going on under the hood? Let’s take a look at some known areas.

Hippo power

The area of the brain responsible for memory formation, the hippocampus, shrinks as a normal process of aging. In people who are physically active, however, the hippocampus can actually increase. This tells us exercise aids in the growth of brain cells in certain areas of the brain.

Neural nitrogen

Physical activity increases brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which acts as something of a brain fertilizer. It is essential to learning and memory. The increase here not only helps with brain cell interconnectivity, it also aids in the growth of new brain cells.


In some cases, exercise can generate the same effect as an anti-depressant in those with mild depression. Research shows that active people tend to be less depressed, which means that exercise may benefit those who suffer from depression.


Physically active children may reap the benefits in a number of areas, including better performance on tests, fewer behavioral problems and improved retention of information.

Stress, anxiety reliever

Exercise can help the body respond better to anxiety disorders. A study by researchers in Chicago also found modest evidence to support the notion that “regular exercise protects against the negative emotional consequences of stress.”

Exactly how much physical activity is needed to reap brain benefits?

As it applies to healthy adults, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends 150 minutes of moderate physical activity each week, as well as some muscle-strengthening activities two days a week.

The activity should be hard enough to increase your breathing and heart rate.

One recent study found that people who exercised more than an hour each day had healthier brain characteristics compared to people who exercised less.

But you don’t have to dive in headlong. If you are currently inactive, start with just a 5- or 10-minute walk each day. Something is always better than nothing. A small amount of exercise can be enough to put you in a better mood and increase your energy.

But keep in mind that the level of fitness and endurance may matter in the long run. A higher endurance level is related to better cognitive abilities.

The more exercise you do, the greater the benefits!