The Neuroprotective Powers of Exercise Should Motivate You

August 6, 2016
Christopher Bergland


Do you need a new source of motivationthat inspires you to become more physically active? Beyond vanity, losing weight, or maintaining heart health—countless studies have confirmed that regular exercise is the best way to protect your brain from the risks of dementia. Physical activity also has the power to boost your cognitive performance and creative capacity throughout your lifespan, while lowering your risk of depression and anxiety.

For over a decade, I’ve been writing about the power of aerobic exercise to increase brain volume of gray matter through neurogenesis (the birth of new neurons) and to stimulate optimal brain connectivity of white matter tracts via neuroplasticity. This morning, I was excited to read, yet another, study reporting that exercise increases brain size and reduces dementia risk as we age.

The August 2016 study, “Physical Activity, Brain Volume, and Dementia Risk: The Framingham Study,” appears in the Journals of Gerontology Series A: Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences.

For this study, researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) used the landmark Framingham Heart Study to assess how physical activity affects brain size and someone's risk of developing dementia.

The UCLA researchers found a strong correlation between low levels of physical activity and a higher risk for dementia in older individuals. These findings suggest that regular physical activity for older adults leads to higher brain volumes and a reduced risk for developing dementia.

In particular, the researchers found that regular physical activity increased the size of the hippocampus, which is a part of the brain strongly linked to learning and memory. The neuroprotective effects of moderate physical activity against dementia were strongest in people age 75 and older. Other studies have shown that regular physical activity has brain benefits at every stage of life. 

Conclusion: Physical Activity Is the Key to Maintaining a Sound Mind in a Sound Body

CLIPAREA l Custom media/Shutterstock
Source: CLIPAREA l Custom media/Shutterstock

Millennia ago, long before the advent of brain imaging technology, the Classic Greeks summed up the importance of staying physically active to keep your mind sharp in the phrase mens sana in corpore sano (a sound mind in a sound body).

Every week, it seems there's a new study that uses state-of-the-art neuroimaging technology to corroborate the fact that keeping your body healthy with regular physical activity also optimizes brain function and improves your psychological well-being. Please add the neuroprotective power of exercise to lower your risk of dementia to a list of reasons that can motivate you to be more active every day.

As a public health advocate—and someone who has personally experienced the profound ability of exercise to metamorphosize your mind, body, and brain—I’m rooting for you to discover “sweat and the biology of bliss” and the neuroprotective benefits of exercise for yourself.

Only about one in five Americans get the recommended 150 minutes of moderate physical activity every week. Hopefully, reading this blog post will be a tipping point that makes a switch go off in your head that inspires you to start seeking at least 30 minutes of physical activity most days of the week—for the rest of your life.

To read more on the neuroprotective benefits of exercise, check out my previous Psychology Today blog posts,