Medically Reviewed by Zilpah Sheikh, MD on August 28, 2023
It May Help You Pay Attention

It May Help You Pay Attention


Have you checked your individual alpha peak frequency (iAPF) lately? Probably not, unless your doctor thought you might have a brain issue like epilepsy or Alzheimer’s disease. The iAPF (part of the EEG test or electroencephalogram) measures your ability to focus and pay attention. It seems to go up after you do some intense exercise. It doesn’t change that much after “steady state” exercise like a leisurely jog or bicycle ride.

It May Help You Remember

It May Help You Remember


Aerobic exercise like walking, jogging, or gardening may help your brain’s hippocampus -- the part that’s linked to memory and learning -- grow. It also might slow the shrinking of your hippocampus that can lead to memory loss as you get older.

Some studies suggest the regrowth is stronger if you like the activity you’re doing. So find something you enjoy and get going.

It Helps Depression and Anxiety

It Helps Depression and Anxiety


Aerobic exercise eases symptoms of depression and anxiety so well, your doctor or therapist may suggest it as a treatment. It could be because exercise slows the damage and breakdown of brain cells. It may take many months to get the full benefit, so make a habit of being active.

It Can Make Your Brain More “Flexible”

It Can Make Your Brain More “Flexible”


Neuroplasticity is the ability of your brain to change when you learn and experience new things. Younger brains are generally better than older ones at doing this, but even those of the same age can have very different capacities.

Scientists believe both aerobic exercise and weight training seem to help make more flexible, or “plastic,” brains.

It May Help You Avoid Dementia

It May Help You Avoid Dementia


People who don’t exercise much are more likely to get Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. That’s in part because exercise helps prevent many of the things that are linked to dementia, like:

  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • Depression

But exercise has a direct effect as well. Scientists can actually see it. More white and gray brain matter and less diseased tissue are all signs of better brain health.

It Helps Your Blood Flow

It Helps Your Blood Flow


Aerobic exercise helps blood get to your brain. It’s partially because exercise makes your heart and blood vessels stronger, from the larger vessels that carry blood up to your head to the tiny microvessels in your brain.

Strong blood vessels -- and the better blood flow they create -- appear to help stop the buildup of plaques linked to dementia. Scientists also believe strong blood flow helps nourish the brain in a way that slows mental decline. Scientists continue to try to figure out exactly how this works.

It Helps You Connect the Dots

It Helps You Connect the Dots


Research suggests exercise improves your ability to organize and interpret information, and act in a way that makes sense -- something called “executive function.” Just one session of exercise can start the process. Over the long term, exercise seems to change structure of white matter in your brain in a way that helps brain cells connect.

It Helps You Sleep

It Helps You Sleep


We know exercise can help you keep an even mood, wind down at bedtime, and establish a healthy sleep-wake cycle (circadian rhythm). The exact brain effects aren’t always clear, but people who exercise more tend to get more “slow wave” sleep -- the kind of deep sleep that helps revitalize your brain and body.

How Much Exercise Makes a Difference?

How Much Exercise Makes a Difference?


Standard recommendations call for 30 minutes of moderate exercise on most days of the week. That’s a great place to start. But doubling that up may give your brain even more benefits. The length of each individual session matters, too. Research shows that some of the best benefits come in exercise sessions that last 45-60 minutes.

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American Association of Neurological Surgeons: “Cerebrovascular Disease.”

Brain, Behavior, and Immunity: “The association between aerobic fitness and executive function is mediated by prefrontal cortex volume.”

Brain Plasticity: “Exercise Improves Vascular Function, but does this Translate to the Brain?”

British Journal of Sports Medicine: “Exercise interventions for cognitive function in adults older than 50: a systematic review with meta-analysis.”

Consumer Reports: “How to Exercise for Brain Health.”

Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience: “A Life-Long Approach to Physical Activity for Brain Health.”

Frontiers in Human Neuroscience: “Aerobic fitness is associated with greater white matter integrity in children.”

Frontiers in Neurology: “Exercise Effects on Sleep Physiology.”

Frontiers in Psychology: “Neuroplasticity and Clinical Practice: Building Brain Power for Health,” “Effects of Physical Exercise on Cognitive Functioning and Wellbeing: Biological and Psychological Benefits.’

Harvard Health Publishing: “Regular exercise changes the brain to improve memory, thinking skills.”

Johns Hopkins Medicine: “Exercising for Better Sleep,” “Electroencephalogram (EEG).”

Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences: “Systematic Review of Neuroimaging Correlates of Executive Functioning: Converging Evidence From Different Clinical Population.”

Mayo Clinic: “EEG (electroencephalogram).”

National Institutes of Health: “Exercise-induced changes in EEG alpha power depend on frequency band definition mode.”

National Sleep Foundation: “A good workout can help you get great shut-eye.”

Neurosensory Disorders in Mild Traumatic Brain Injury: “Cognitive Rehabilitation for Mild Traumatic Brain Injury (mTBI).”

UCSF Memory and Aging Center: “Executive Functions.”

University of Denver: “Executive Functions.”

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: “Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans.”

U.S. National Library of Medicine: “BDNF gene.”