Brain Health: The Mental Benefits of Physical Fitness

By Maryanne Edmundson, Ph.D., L.P.

Regular exercise not only bulks up your muscles, strengthens your bones and keeps your joints flexible – it also beefs up your brain. Research shows that engaging in exercise reduces neural inflammation, increases the release of chemicals that keep brain cells healthy and facilitates neuroplasticity, meaning it fosters new and stronger connections between brain cells. Exercise especially strengthens the connections within areas that deal with memory, emotional control, multitasking, controlling impulses, problem solving and body movement, sensation and coordination, and expands the links between brain regions. This boost in the brain’s neuroplasticity can help us to better cope with novel situations and reduce stress.

Exercise is especially important as we age. Studies reveal that aerobic exercise and resistance training reduce the chances of cognitive decline and loss of brain cells that are a normal part of aging. Regular physical activity also protects our brains from the potential cognitive effects of medical conditions. For example, a research study of people with heart failure showed those who walked daily had better cognitive performance and increased tissue volumes in areas connecting brain regions. Exercise reduces the incidence and impact of diseases that affect the health of our blood vessels, such as coronary artery disease, hypertension and diabetes – thus, regular physical activity can lessen the chance that these vascular health conditions will cause cognitive decline and dementia. Regular exercise can also lower your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, delay its onset, slow its progression and, especially in the early stages of the condition, can improve memory, judgment and thinking clarity. Consistent physical activity also has many indirect benefits for people with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias, including keeping a person physically capable of participating in daily activities for longer, improving sleep, adding activity to their daily routine, increasing self-confidence and reducing depression, anxiety and stress. Overall, exercise is a great investment that can boost your health and protect your brain.

The best exercise programs increase your heart rate and typically involve 30 to 60-minute sessions at least several days per week. Before you begin your exercise program, consult with your primary doctor – each individual may require unique recommendations for how frequently they should work out, how intense their exercises should be and what types of programs are best given their medical history. If needed, your doctor can also suggest local programs specifically designed for people with certain conditions (like Parkinson’s disease). When starting a new exercise routine, ease into it by first working out for shorter increments than your ultimate goal (for example, begin with 10 minute sessions and slowly work up to 30 to 60 minutes) – it will not help to overdo it. Always begin an exercise session with a warmup and end with cool down time. Choose exercises that you enjoy and are likely to keep up over time. Not everyone goes to the gym to lift weights – some prefer yoga or Tai Chi classes, water aerobics, walking around their neighborhood with a friend, dancing or gardening. Talk
to your doctor if you experience pain or feel ill with physical exertion.

If you have cognitive changes and want to learn more about how to improve your functioning, contact your primary doctor about getting an evaluation with a professional.

Dr. Maryanne Edmundson, a clinical neuropsychologist at Pinehurst Neuropsychology, can be reached at 910-420-8041, or by visiting