Wednesday, June 20, 2012

How Aerobic Exercise Affects Your Brain

This is a guest blog post by the folks over at What Are Nootropics?  As per usual, guest posts are posted "as is" and do not necessarily reflect the endorsement by Kevin McGrew or this blog.

Worldwide, people engage in aerobic exercise on a daily basis. The majority of these people are trying to lose weight and strengthen their hearts. An improved basal metabolic rate and cardiovascular fitness are the most commonly known benefits associated with aerobic exercise. But how many people have thought about the ways aerobic exercise affects their brain? Probably not many. 

Aerobic exercise affects your brain?

Research in recent years has shown that aerobic exercise effects our brain in three distinct ways. If you don't have the motivation to engage in regular aerobic exercise, hopefully you will have found it by the time you are finished reading this post.

Aerobic exercise increases levels of the protein brain-derived nootropic factor (BDNF).  1 The BDNF protein plays an important role in our brain's ability to create new neurons, a process called neurogenesis. BDNF also improves the survivability of new neurons after they have been created. The process of neurogenesis takes place in the hippocampus, the area of the brain responsible for memory formation. Interestingly, one study showed that aerobic exercise increased hippocampal volume by 2% and effectively reversed age related loss in volume by 2 years. 2 If you want your brain to be at its sharpest, you need to be exercising on a regular basis. This is especially important as you age.

Higher levels of BDNF isn't the only way aerobic exercise improves cognitive function. As stated earlier, it is common knowledge that aerobic exercise strengthens your heart, but many people are aware of the link that exists between heart health and brain health? You heart is responsible for pumping blood to your brain. Blood contains oxygen and glucose, which your brain uses as fuel to carry out all of its functions. Think of your heart as the battery which powers your brain. By strengthening that battery, you can improve cognitive function across the board. 3

Aerobic exercise does more than improve cognitive abilities.

Aerobic exercise effects the levels of one very important neurotransmitter. Neurotransmitters are what your brain cells use to communicate with each other. Different neurotransmitters have different functions. There is a neurotransmitter for learning, memory, attention, energy, appetite, mood, etc. Aerobic exercise increases release of the neurotransmitter serotonin. 

Serotonin's most prevalent function is its ability to regulate mood. Many people who are chronically depressed have abnormally low levels of serotonin. Consequently, most anti-depressants work by inhibiting the breakdown of serotonin. Simply put, the more serotonin in your brain, the better you feel. Aerobic exercise is a completely natural way to increases serotonin levels in the brain. 4 This is why aerobic exercise is such an effective stress reliever.

In fact, some marathon runners actually become addicted to the activity. The engage in such strenuous amounts of aerobic exercise, they experience what is called a "runner's high." 5 Many have the desire to run longer and longer distances simply to achieve a greater high.  Will you experience a "runner high"? Not likely, but you will elevate your serotonin levels and find you are in a better mood on a day-to-day basis.

Are there other ways to achieve these effects?

The cheapest and safest way to improve cognitive abilities and boost mood is to exercise for one hour, at least three days a week. However, there are other ways. Using nootropics such as lion's mane mushroom can also increase neurogenesis. Piracetam, on the other hand, improves cerebral blood flow. Personally, I would not even think about nootropics until you are doing everything else you can to improve cognitive function, and aerobic exercise is the single best place to start!


1. Running is the neurogenic and neurotrophic stimulus in environmental enrichment
2. Exercise training increases size and hippocampus and improves memory:

3. Cardiovascular fitness is associated with cognition in young adulthood:

4. Abstract, How to increase serotonin in the human brain without drugs:

5. ABC News, Exercise Addicts Can Blame Their Brains:

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