If exercise were a drug, we would say its benefits were too good to be true. Not only does it keep us healthy and help us live longer, it makes us smarter and happier, too. Working out can enhance memory, speed up reaction times, improve attention, and alleviate depression. It may even stave off neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.
How does it do all that?
Over the past decade, scientists have started to uncover the ways exercise impacts our brains. Working out increases levels of important hormones and neurochemicals that help forge new connections between brain cells, and may even lead to the birth of neurons in an area of the brain called the hippocampus, the organ’s mood and memory hub.
“Exercise seems to be good for practically every function in the brain and body,” says Fernando Gomez-Pinilla, a professor in the Department of Integrative Biology and Physiology at UCLA.
Every time you work out, your muscles, fat cells, and liver release a variety of molecules into the bloodstream. Some of these molecules circulate through the body and travel up to the brain, where they cross the blood-brain barrier. Once inside, they trigger a cascade of beneficial changes that can make you feel sharper and happier.
One of the most crucial changes is the release of a growth hormone called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF. When it comes to exercise’s positive effects on the brain, BDNF is the star.
“Exercise seems to be good for practically every function in the brain and body.”
“This is one of the most important molecules for brain function in connection to the effects of exercise,” says Gomez-Pinilla. “BDNF is very important for all of the basic processes related to learning and memory in the brain.”
BDNF helps the brain build new connections, or synapses, between neurons — a process called synaptic plasticity that is thought to be the foundation for learning. Cells communicate through these…