How Exercise Makes You More Intelligent and Improves Brain Health

How Exercise Makes You Smarter

When you think of the benefits of exercise, you’re likely to first think of the countless ways it improves your body physically. However, exercise is also a potent tool for improving brain health, increasing cognitive performance, and making you smarter in general.

From creating new neurons to maximizing focus and attention, this article breaks down everything you need to know about the most powerful ways exercise positively impacts your brain. 

10 Ways Exercise Makes Your Smarter and Improves Brain Health

1. Increases Neurogenesis

One of the most profound ways exercise affects your brain health is by increasing neurogenesis. For adults, neurogenesis is the formation of new neurons in your brain from stem and progenitor cells. 

For a long time, it used to be believed that neurogenesis only occurred during the embryonic phase of human development. But now we know that this process can also happen in the adult brain, only, as you get older, your ability to create new neurons begins to slow down.

One of the best ways to keep this process active as an adult is through exercise. Physical exercise promotes the expression of a protein called Brain-derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF). This protein is responsible for regulating many processes in neurogenesis, from nerve cell survival to differentiating which neurons do what in the central nervous system.

Neurogenesis as an adult plays a critical role in almost all cognitive functions, as well as protecting the neurons you already have. This makes regular exercise one of the most powerful tools at your disposal for improving and maintaining your brain health throughout your life.

2. Enhances Neuroplasticity

Just having new neurons through neurogenesis doesn’t help you very much if your brain doesn’t have the ability to do something with them. That’s where the importance of neuroplasticity comes into play.

Neuroplasticity is your brain’s ability to modify its connections and re-wire itself to adapt to its changing environment. This ability to develop new connections and prune away weak ones is what allows you to learn new things, enhance your existing cognitive skills, and recover from traumatic brain injuries.

By increasing BDNF and blood flow to the brain through exercise, you are able to trigger the biochemical changes that promote neuroplasticity in your brain. Both neurogenesis and neuroplasticity are two of the foundational components of long-term brain health throughout development and as you age. And they also play a significant role in many of the benefits of exercise throughout this article.

But there is also one additional variable we need to cover in the next section that helps produce more of the short-term benefits to boosting brain function through exercise. Hormones and neurotransmitters. 

3. Sharpens Focus and Attention Control

Whenever you exercise, it causes your body to release a cascade of neurotransmitters and hormones that positively affect your cognitive function, especially for short-term boosts of focus and attention.

Here are five of the most prominent neurotransmitters and hormones released by exercise:

  1. Dopamine
  2. Noradrenaline
  3. Serotonin
  4. Endorphins
  5. Endocannabinoids 

These neurotransmitters and hormones have a broad array of effects on your cognitive function and mood. One of the most prominent is stimulating your brain to help you focus and stay motivated on the task at hand.

4. Increases Energy Efficiency

From improving circulation to increasing mitochondrial density, regular exercise helps your body become more efficient with how it uses energy.

We often forget that thinking uses a ton of energy. And many of its energy sources are the same ones the rest of your body uses to sustain itself throughout the day. Where that leaves you is your brain competing with the rest of your body for how much energy it gets, and when it becomes depleted, you’re often left with foggy thinking and low energy.

An excellent example of this is jobs that are mentally taxing but not physically taxing. After a long day of sitting in front of a computer screen thinking and solving complex problems, you’ll often come home absolutely exhausted. And you’ve probably also thought, “Why am I so tired? All I did was sit in front of my computer all day at work, and I should have tons of energy still!” It’s all because thinking also burns a ton of energy.

By increasing your energy efficiency through exercise, you’re extending how long your mind and body can sustain their energy levels with the same amount of resources. 

5. Increases Cognitive Processing Speed

Cognitive processing speed is how long it takes when your brain receives information to process it, understand it, and then start to respond. 

The American Academy of Neurology conducted a review to assess the current data and see how much exercise is needed to improve cognitive processing speed.

What they found after evaluating all of the data is that in both healthy individuals as well as people with cognitive impairment, at least 52 hours of exercise conducted over an average of six months showed significant improvement in the brain’s processing speed and the amount of time it takes to complete a mental task.

Your cognitive processing speed is crucial for nearly every mental task you take each day. If you think of your brain like using a computer. Doing the same tasks on a laptop with a slow CPU versus a fast CPU creates a night and day difference for how quickly you can get things done.

Your brain works in a similar way. The faster you can take in information, understand it, and then begin to respond (either physically or mentally) ultimately determines how sharp you feel and how efficiently you get through the day.

6. Enhances Mood

Exercise enhances your mood through some of the same mechanisms outlined in section three. Hormones and neurotransmitters.

Endorphins, serotonin, and dopamine work together and independently as potent drivers for affecting your mental state. 

Endorphins help improve mood, reduce pain and stress, and lower your blood pressure. Dopamine activates the reward centers of your brain to enhance your motivation and feeling of accomplishment. And serotonin helps reduce anxiety and gives you the feeling that everything seems right in the moment.

The great thing about exercise for mood enhancement is that it not only has short-term effects from the “feel-good hormones” that are released. But it also helps create long-term changes that positively impact your mood and well-being.

Sticking to a regular exercise program affects your mood long-term first by improving your general health overall. And secondly, by increasing your dopamine due to the feeling of achievement from making progress on your goals.

Together it can create a powerful combination of short-term and long-term mood improvements.

7. Sharpens Focus and Attention Control

Exercise helps increase the concentrations of epinephrine and norepinephrine in your brain.

Norepinephrine and epinephrine are part of the body’s fight-or-flight response to external events. Its purpose is to trigger alertness, focus, and enhance memory retrieval to help you determine a course of action and escape danger.

Luckily, exercise is a form of ‘controlled stress,’ rather than putting yourself in dangerous situations to stimulate the release of norepinephrine. However, it still produces the same effects of enhanced focus and having the ability to push out distractions to maintain your attention on the task at hand.

8. Increases Productivity

There are two primary ways exercise helps increase productivity; through increasing dopamine and improving energy efficiency.

Dopamine is a chemical that regulates motivation, and it helps you initiate action and then persevere to finish a task and feel accomplished. Regular exercise helps remodel the reward system, leading to higher circulating levels of dopamine and more available dopamine receptors. 

Exercise also has a profound ability to improve your energy consumption efficiency. That means, with regular exercise, you increase how much energy it takes to do the same tasks. Your brain is always calculating ‘how much energy does this require’ compared to ‘what the reward will be.’ Increasing your energy efficiency helps make the expenditure of energy seem less significant than the potential reward.

When you combine these two aspects of increased circulating dopamine and energy efficiency, initiating action to begin with becomes easier. And it also becomes easier to sustain energy and endure the task to successful completion.

Regular exercise is shown to help mitigate the risks of age-related cognitive decline. 

The improvements in blood circulation in combination with elevated brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) help protect and regenerate neurons in the brain. But also, improvements and stimulation of working memory from exercise are also shown to reduce global cognitive decline and lessen behavioral problems in people with mild cognitive impairment or dementia.

Just like neuroplasticity tends to decline as we age, our ability to regenerate neurons in the brain also declines as cells die. However, exercise initiates diverse and powerful neuroprotective pathways that can help promote continued brain health even into old age.

10. Encourages Flow States

Renowned psychologist Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi pioneered the research into the performance-enhancing mental states we now refer to as “flow states.”

Flow states are mental states of task engagement where the person performing the activity is fully immersed in the feeling of focus on the task with low levels of self-referential thinking. More commonly, this state of high-performance is usually referred to as “being in the zone.”

If you’ve ever experienced a powerful flow state, you understand how potent it is for productivity, focus, and general performance for whatever the task is you’re immersed in.

When you achieve a flow state, it can leave you feeling ecstatic, motivated, and fulfilled. Much of this phenomenon is due to the downregulation of the prefrontal cortex in combination with the same cocktail of neurotransmitters and hormones released by exercise.

Because of this, exercise is one of the most reliable ways to get your body and mind into a flow state. After all, the word flow is a verb. And even when it’s used as a noun, it describes an action. So it makes complete sense that the movement and action of exercise play a significant role in reliably achieving states of flow.

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