How does exercise help brain health?

With Dr Tara Swart 


When we exercise, we not only exercise our bodies, we affect our brains too.


Exercise increases oxygenation of the blood flowing around the brain and body. 0xygen and glucose are important, as they are the resources that our brain uses to think. Additionally, if you do exercise you enjoy (dance, spin, swimming etc) endorphins and proteins such as something called BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) that contribute to the growth of new cells in the hippocampus, where memories and new learnings are embedded, are released.


Ideally, we should avoid being sedentary during the day and try to hit around 5000-10,000 steps, and then do up to 150 minutes of aerobic exercise per week. There are different benefits to the brain from doing weight bearing exercise, or exercise that involves hand-eye co-ordination such as ping pong, or even doing exercise with someone rather than alone. Exercise also benefits the gut bacteria, so this contributes to a stronger positive impact via the gut-brain connection.


It also affects stress by reducing levels of the stress hormone cortisol, whether that’s by moving your body into rest and digest mode through yoga, or sweating out cortisol on a run. Women who do yoga three times a week have lower cortisol levels than age-matched women who don’t.


If we are not sufficiently active during the day then it can lead to difficulty sleeping. Lots of people report that exercising outdoors has an additional benefit on sleep.


My top tips for getting the most out of exercise are:

  • Leave your trainers by the door and hand weights at your desk to prompt you to do exercise during the day!
  • Try a standing desk, make sure you are moving around during that day, and choose a form of exercise that you enjoy rather than dragging yourself to do exercise because you have been sedentary
  • Identify the time of day that works best for you to exercise: people who exercise for 30 minutes in the morning are 15% more productive that day. Exercise is also great for establishing the boundary between the end of work time and the start of home life.
  • Try to vary your exercise by focusing on the main thing that you enjoy e.g. spinning, but also do some yoga sessions and some weights work each week.