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.