Healthy Brain

Healthy Brain Habit: Get Physical Exercise

We know that exercise is good for the body, but it’s also incredibly good for the brain. As the authors of “The Sharp Brains Guide to Brain Fitness: 18 Interviews with Scientists, Practical Advice, and Product Reviews to Keep Your Brain Sharp” point out, physical exercise is one of the four pillars of brain fitness, the other three being good nutrition, stress management, and mental stimulation.  Exercise gets rid of harmful stress chemicals and it boosts problem-solving, planning, and attention. Getting more exercise will help you improve your cognitive functions whether you’re a high school or college student, part of the work force, or an elderly person in retirement.

Below you’ll find interesting data from two books, filled with information on how our brains work, which describe the science behind the discovery that our brain functions much better when we exercise.   

The First Brain Rule is to Exercise In the New York Times bestseller “Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School”, Dr. John Medina—a developmental molecular biologist focused on the genes involved in human brain development—shares 12 rules that will improve the functioning of  your brain so that you can get the most out of it.  He explains that the first rule for getting your brain to work at its best is to exercise.  Dr. Medina argues that if we were to design an almost perfect anti-brain environment, it would look like our current classrooms and work cubicles.


Because a protein called BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor)–which builds and nourishes the infrastructure of cell circuitry in the brain—is created when you’re physically active. Dr. Medina basically calls BDNF brain fertilizer, and he equates a group of kids sitting around in a classroom listening to a lecture, or an employee sitting in a cramped cubicle typing away at his computer, with a light bulb that is turned off. However, when the kids are out on the playground, or the employee is walking to work, the light bulb is turned on.    He suggests that employees have “walking meetings” in a treadmill conference room, that they move around the office as they speak on the phone, or that they sit on exercise balls and bounce up and down as they read their e-mails.  Creative solutions can also be found to get kids in the classroom to be more physically active.

In addition, Dr. Medina explains that in 18 studies of older adults, those who exercised outperformed those who did not in long-term memory, reasoning, attention, problem-solving, abstract thinking, and more. He goes on to say that an active lifestyle means half the risk of dementia and half the risk of cognitive impairment for these older adults. In this time of increased longevity, regular exercise is an important protective element against the progression of age, if we hope to live not just longer, but better.

Two more reasons why exercise improves cognition are the following: First, exercise increases oxygen flow to the brain, which reduces brain-bound free radicals. In addition, in order to get more oxygen to the brain, you need more blood vessels, and exercise increases and deepens blood vessels. And second, exercise acts directly on the molecular machinery of the brain itself; it increases neurons’ creation, survival, and resistance to damage and stress.

How Exercise Promotes Learning In “Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain”, Dr. John Ratey, clinical associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, contends that “exercise is the single most powerful tool you have to optimize brain function.”  In his book, he explains how sustained aerobic exercise promotes learning in three main ways. First,exercise activates the executive functioning area of the brain, or the frontal cortex.  This activation makes people more attentive, less impulsive, and less fidgety.  When someone can sustain their attention for a longer period of time, it promotes their ability to sort though information and better absorb it. Dr. Ratey explains that the second way in which exercise improves the functioning of the brain is that it improves the environment in which the nerve cells in our brains live.  It does this by promoting the release of neurotransmitters, hormones, and other elements of brain chemistry which help prime these cells to perform their functions efficiently.

Third, exercise promotes neurogenesis, or the process of growing new brain cells. Although for many years it was believed that the number of neurons  in the adult brain remained fixed, research conducted in the last few years has shown otherwise.  Specifically, exercise adds more brain cells in the area of the brain which has to do with learning and memory, which is an areacalled the hippocampus, also known as “The Grand Central Station” for memory. In fact, Dr. Ratey goes on to say that there’s nothing that we know of that adds new brain cells better than exercise.

So, for how long should you exercise? Dr. Ratey recommends that you exercise about thirty minutes a day, almost daily.

As an aside, teachers and parents will want to read about the revolutionary fitness program in Naperville, Illinois–documented in“Spark”–which put the local school district of 19,000 kids first in the world in science test scores. Conclusion As Dr. Medina points out, exercise strengthens muscles and bones, reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s, regulates appetite, improves fluid intelligence, decreases risk for heart disease, decreases chances of diabetes, improves long-term memory, and has many more benefits.  For your body’s health, and for your brain’s health, make exercising a part of your regular routine.  Be sure to check with your doctor before starting an exercise program.

Marelisa Fábrega is a guest blogger for PickTheBrain.  She blogs about creativity, productivity, and simplifying your life over at Abundance Blog at MarelisaOnline.

Marelisa is the author of the ebook “How to Be More Creative – A Handbook forAlchemists”

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Erin shows overscheduled, overwhelmed women how to do less so that they can achieve more. Traditional productivity books—written by men—barely touch the tangle of cultural pressures that women feel when facing down a to-do list. How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.

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