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How exercise improves your mental performance

29 Nov 2022

Did you know that exercise can help your brain grow, and delay brain ageing? Tone up your body and your brain health will benefit, too. Everybody knows about the benefits of exercise. We know, for example, that exercising several times a week helps combat obesity and reduces the risk of developing serious conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure.1

But it’s less well known that exercise also has important benefits for cognitive function and our mental health.

Exercise increases brain size

Your biceps aren’t the only muscles to grow when you work out – your brain does, too. A 2017 Finnish study published in Age and Ageing found exercisers had significantly more grey matter in the brain than those who led a sedentary lifestyle.2 It seems that working out triggers the release of growth factors; chemicals in the brain that encourage new blood vessels and brain cells to grow.3

Handpicked content: 11 ways to fit exercise into your daily routine

Activity vs. brain ageing

Exercise can protect your brain from ageing too. In a study published in 2011 in Archives of Internal Medicine, women who exercised for 30 minutes or more a day showed less cognitive decline over time than those who were inactive.4 The reason? Aerobic exercise keeps the blood vessels that supply the brain healthy, preventing the build-up of inflammatory proteins.5,6 This is one of the reasons that staying active is thought to reduce your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease in later life.7

You get a natural high from exercising

When we work out, the brain releases powerful hormones called endorphins that activate opioid receptors to induce a natural high.8,9 There’s also evidence that regular exercise makes the brain more sensitive to serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates mood.10

So whether it’s walking, cycling, running or laps at the pool, stay active and your mental health will benefit too.

Handpicked content: Make your walk work harder!

Advice is for information only and should not replace medical care. Please check with your GP before trying any remedies.
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1. Macpherson H, et al. A Life-Long Approach to Physical Activity for Brain Health. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5440589/
2. Pentikäinen H, et al. Cardiorespiratory fitness and brain volumes in men and women in the FINGER study. Available from: https://academic.oup.com/ageing/article-abstract/46/2/310/2863850
3. Harvard Health Publishing. Regular exercise changes the brain to improve memory, thinking skills. Available from: https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/regular-exercise-changes-brain-improve-memory-thinking-skills-201404097110
4. Middleton LE, et al. Activity energy expenditure and incident cognitive impairment in older adults. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3923462/
5. Peters R. Ageing and the brain. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2596698/
6. As Source 1
7. As Source 1
8. Anderson E and Shivakumar G. Effects of Exercise and Physical Activity on Anxiety. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3632802/
9. Sprouse-Blum A, et al. Understanding Endorphins and Their Importance in Pain Management. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3104618/
10. Healthline. The Top 10 Benefits of Regular Exercise. Available from: https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/10-benefits-of-exercise#section1

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