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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49 Responses to Healthy Brain Habit: Get Physical Exercise

  1. Great post!! I need to give my brain some exercise ASAP!

  2. Marelisa says:

    Hi Dani: I jog four days a week and walk one or two additional days. Have to take care of that brain! :-)

  3. Excerise does several thing to the body!

    1.Increase blood flow to the brain
    2.Provide clarity in the mind
    3.Idea generator increases
    4.Greater mental health
    5.Increased Life Span
    6.More Happy thoughts
    7. How to think positive becomes easier
    8. Keeping up with your grand kids instead of being on your couch lazier than a lazy boi

    Great post!

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  5. Bob says:

    Some places say 30 minutes 3 times a week, but I think that’s terrible. Your body needs a lot more than that.

  6. Marelisa says:

    Hi Jonathan: Exercise is one of the best things you can do for yourself. :-)

  7. Nikhil says:

    Wow, thanks for the insightful post!

    Mind if I share yet another benefit to exercise?

    When you exercise, your body releases endorphins, or “happiness chemicals”. These chemicals are also known as “natural pain killers”. Exercise is your body’s natural way of relieving stress and making you feel happy!

    Best Regards,

  8. Casey says:

    Great post. Working in a cubicle environment myself, I found that starting a habit of walk for 30 minutes during my lunch break has made a huge difference in my overall productivity throughout the day. I’d highly recommend it to help keep up energy and alertness throughout the afternoon.

  9. Great post, well-researched. Commenters sound like people already in the good habit of exercising, but not everyone finds it easy.

    FYI: I blog about how to free ourselves from self-defeating habits to make space for what we really want in our lives. For people who find it hard to change a habit, it helps to become conscious of how the undesired habit works. Then a different, more life-affirming choice can be made.

  10. Alvaro says:

    Marelisa – great article. And thank you for mentioning our new book, The SharpBrains Guide to Brain Fitness.

    Let me add one more core idea, linking to a new article in The Journal of Active Aging where I explore it in more depth:

    Consider the type of mental exercise
    experienced daily by London cab drivers.
    Every new ride requires a complex mental
    task to decide the most efficient route
    to complete the continually novel challenge
    at hand. Contrast that with the
    routine mental activity (we couldn’t really
    call it “mental exercise”) undertaken by
    London bus drivers who, day after day,
    follow a precise itinerary. Clearly, if you
    lived in London and wanted to protect
    and even grow your hippocampus, you
    would choose to drive a cab, not a bus.

    Of course, the brain has a variety of
    structures and functions to maintain,
    well beyond the hippocampus, hence the
    need for cross-training.

    Full article is available, free, here:

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  12. Peter says:

    This is a really great article and came at the right time, I’ve made a link to it on my latest fitness and frugality post here .
    I consider exercise to be a very important aspect of our lives and development. Once upon a time people did much more physical work, this has been replaced for many of use by information based jobs.
    Getting out and having some fun while making ourselves fit is very important.

  13. Marelisa says:

    Hi Alvaro: Thank you for stopping by and for the information you provide in your comment. I’m heading over to read the article you mention right now.

  14. Marelisa says:

    Hi Peter: Thank you. And you’re absolutely right; our bodies were made to move. We need to make sure that we make time for exercise.

  15. Marelisa says:

    Hi Nikhil: Yes. Sometimes I’ll be upset about something, I’ll go for a jog, and by the time I get back I feel so much better. Exercise is definitely a great mood lifter.

  16. Marelisa says:

    Hi Casey: Exercising during your lunch hour is a great way to increase both your productivity and your creativity at work.

  17. Jason Cooper says:

    That good old saying, “healthy body, healthy mind” is never more relevant to this great post.

    I think if one can can achieve total exercise of mind, body and spirit it will go a long way towards enhancing ones personal growth in life.

  18. Plip says:

    Wow! That was one quality post! I’ve been meaning to get my old bike fixed up for a long time, I was doing much better when I used to ride almost daily. :)

  19. Marte says:

    Hi, Marelisa! Liked your article a lot! Just adds more scientific basis to the “mind-body-spirit” connection. I work in my office a lot and definitely notice that when I am able to get plenty of exercise, my mind is clearer and calmer. Great stuff – keep it up!

  20. Marelisa says:

    Hi Jason, hi Plip, hi Marte: I’m glad you enjoyed the post, thank you for your comments. :-)

  21. Karim says:

    An insightfull post. Will definitely help.

    Karim – Positive thinking

  22. Technical Site Issues.. says:

    Hi, this isn’t necessarily related to the post but I can;t contact the site admin or anyone since all the links on this site seem to be broken. (Topics, Archives, About Page) None of it seems to be working for me. Is it just me?

  23. Jason Cooper says:

    It’s not just you – there technical problems, when trying to click to a few pages I’m getting:

    Not Found

    The requested URL /blog/about/ was not found on this server.
    Apache/2.0.54 Server at Port 80

    I think they may have ports blocked on the hosts server.

  24. Beth Banning says:

    Thanks for the informative post, Marelisa. It never really crossed my mind that physical exercise also “strengthens” one’s brain. But when you really think about it, it makes a lot of sense. Your physical condition greatly affects how you think.

  25. n00na says:

    i donot understand anything

  26. Paul Norwine says:

    Hi Marelisa,

    I actually just read a separate blog post centered around the discussion of exercise and the brain and both this post and the other one provide great reasons as to why it’s so important.

    Just speaking from personal experience, the idea of “walking meetings” or even pacing and moving while on the phone is an important revelation. I used to “cram” for tests in college and grad school without retaining information past the test. But when I would “walk” after a long cramming session, I would not only retain the information far longer than normal, but I was also better able to compartmentalize and organize my thoughts. Just my two cents but a great article!


  27. craig says:

    whats going on with this site? no new articles in a while

  28. khaled says:

    The “Archives” Link is broken too
    I want to read the past articles but can’t access it

  29. Mark says:

    A useful nudge – time to get on the waterower!

  30. Toni says:

    hi there Marelisa,

    your article is very interesting and very informative, a lot of people including myself can learn from this site, great work!!! hi five for you!!!

  31. khanov says:

    thanx Marelisa for subject it’s very advantageous

  32. JorgeN says:

    Wonderful article ! I enjoyed it.
    Consider supplementing the exercise with subliminal messages to help you focus, enjoy and achieve your goals.
    Tony Robbins introduced me to this software recently:

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  34. physio says:

    What a great article. And timely too. I 100% agree with this article. I find that when I am on track with exercise, staying consistent, not only can I focus more, concentrate better, and have more energy, but I just feel good too. Now I have a little proof to support what I was feeling.

    I really like the walking meeting idea. Sounds cheezy, but I bet it would really work well.

    I’ll be tweeting this article a bit later. Thanks for sharing.

  35. John F says:

    Hey well brought-up Info. It is much of use Soon you Apply it. Much supportive. Mahalo.

  36. prom gowns says:

    Im glad to know this blog. Two big thumbs up, man!

  37. Iona says:

    this is all so true! I get my elderly parents out walking nmost days, even if it’s just for 20 minutes, and it really helps blow away the cobwebs and keep them alert. Doing brain exercises is also important and now my kids do brain exercise with their Grandparents every day – good for all! We found an amazing brain training course called Brain tune, which we got the first week free, and now this is what they do all the time. Great for getting some laughs too. also eating well is very, very important, no junk food and rubbish on our plates – we eat lots of Omega 3, nuts, seeds, raw veges etc.
    Try Brain Tune for Free Memory Help & Brain Training
    Free bonus book about Brain Food

  38. mike says:

    great article!

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  40. Babylon says:

    This is awesome! Not only does physical activity get us moving, it makes us smarter! Yay! I incorporate cycling into my everyday life which not only keeps my cardio level up, it keeps me out of the gym!

  41. I always find exercising not only give me energy to work, but it also refreshes my mind and makes me relax.

  42. Araselyfigeroa says:

    i think exercise is very good for  you

  43. Araselyfigeroa says:

    it is awsome

  44. Gaurav Sharma says:

    I am a student of class 9 and i cant properly concentrate in studies in exams and unit test i bring only 38,40,42 out of 100 and passing marks is 33 and in maths and science numerical s. i have very week. i cannot understand anything in maths and that’s why i need some tips to improve my name Gaurav Sharma. Address-Dheradun,Suddhowala,Jhajra.

  45.  Exercise controls weight, combats health disease and conditions, improves blood and boosts a lot of energy.

  46. Nutcase says:

    I know you are write but I dot now how to anything. I am not talented.

  47. Beauty says:

    Can you marry me.

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  49. Zara Whitaker says:


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