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Regular Exercise Can Change the Brain

Improving Memory and Thinking Skills

In case you’re wondering, plenty of good reasons to be physically active exist. Big ones include reducing the odds of developing heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. Maybe you want to lose weight, lower your blood pressure, prevent depression, or just look better. Here’s another one, which especially applies to those of us experiencing the brain fog that comes with age: exercise changes the brain in ways that protect memory and thinking skills.

“In a study done at the University of British Columbia, researchers found that regular aerobic exercise, the kind that gets your heart and your sweat glands pumping, appears to boost the size of the hippocampus, the brain area involved in verbal memory and learning,” said Heidi Godman, Executive Editor, Harvard Health Letter. “Resistance training, balance and muscle toning exercises did not have the same results.”

The finding comes at a critical time. Researchers say one new case of dementia is detected every four seconds globally. They estimate that by the year 2050, more than 115 million people will have dementia worldwide.

Exercise and the brain

Emphasizing that exercise helps memory and thinking through both direct and indirect means, Godman added that 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,” said Godman. “Problems in these areas frequently cause or contribute to cognitive impairment.”

Dr. Scott McGinnis, a neurologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and an instructor in neurology at Harvard Medical School, supports Godman’s assertion, stating himself how many studies have suggested that the parts of the brain that control thinking and memory (the prefrontal cortex and medial temporal cortex) have greater volume in people who exercise versus people who don’t.

“Even more exciting is the finding that engaging in a program of regular exercise of moderate intensity over six months or a year is associated with an increase in the volume of selected brain regions,” said McGinnis.

Put it to the test

So what should you do? Start exercising!

Which exercise is best? Almost all of the research has looked at walking, including the latest study. “It’s likely that other forms of aerobic exercise that get your heart pumping might yield similar benefits,” said McGinnis.

How much exercise is required? If you choose walking, then be willing to walk briskly for one hour, twice a week. That’s 120 minutes of moderate intensity exercise a week.

“Standard recommendations advise half an hour of moderate physical activity most days of the week, or 150 minutes a week, said Godman, adding that if that seems daunting, start with a few minutes a day, and increase the amount you exercise by five or 10 minutes every week until you reach your goal.

If you don’t want to walk, consider other moderate-intensity exercises, such as swimming, stair climbing, tennis, squash, or dancing. “Don’t forget that household activities can count as well, such as intense floor mopping, raking leaves, or anything that gets your heart pumping so much that you break out in a light sweat,” said McGinnis.

If you don’t have the discipline to do it on your own, try any or all of these ideas:

  • Join a class or work out with a friend who’ll hold you accountable.
  • Track your progress, which encourages you to reach a goal.
  • If you’re able, hire a personal trainer. (Paying an expert is good motivation.)

“Whatever exercise and motivators you choose, commit to establishing exercise as a habit, almost like taking a prescription medication,” McGinnis said. “After all, they say that exercise is medicine, and that can go on the top of anyone’s list of reasons to work out.”



Godman, H. (2016). “Regular exercise changes the brain to improve memory, thinking skills,” Harvard Health Blog. Harvard Health Publications. Retrieved August 9, 2016, from


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