How Exercise Shapes The Brain

Daily exercise shapes the brain, improving function and protecting this valuable organ for years to come

We know that exercise strengthens the body. Yoga improves strength, flexibility, and lung capacity. Dancing supports cardio and body strength, while also stimulating creativity. Weight training strengthens both our muscles and bones. But did you know exercise shapes the brain each time we work out?

What Happens When We Exercise?

When we exercise, our body releases happy hormones, which in turn lowers stress.

My favorite explanation of this phenomenon is that humans evolved to be afraid of predators, which is why adrenaline makes us stronger (mother lifting a car off her child strong). But we are no longer prey. Our bodies now handle daily stress (like job stress) without releasing that tension.

When we workout, our body releases that stress. Our heart quickens, we sweat, our breathing gets faster. Our bodies mimic the natural stress response to danger, albeit in a controlled and (hopefully) safe environment.

Afterward, when you are stretching or drinking your favorite smoothie, your body relaxes, and that “danger” is recognized as gone. We trick our bodies into thinking we won the fight for our lives!

How Exactly Exercise Shapes The Brain

On-top of lowering overall stress, exercising daily benefits our brain health in countless ways!

Exercise can:

  • reduce cortisol (the stress hormone mentioned above)
  • increase grey matter
  • create new neural connections

As more oxygen is pumped to the brain with exercise, brain cells grow. This promotes grey matter growth, which protects the functions of the brain, such as processing signals from our body.

Moreover, exercise improves neural plasticity. The more we use our body, and how we vary our body’s movements, can create new connections in our brain. New connections mean we think quicker, we think more creatively, and we are building protective factors against aging.

In fact, researchers are exploring the connection between physical activity and anti-aging right now! Results are promising for both physical and mental capabilities. Therefore, the more we exercise throughout our lives, the healthier we are in body and mind.

Does All Exercise Have The Same Effect?

Regular exercise is essential to protecting our brains. If we want to improve memory, reduce stress, and increase our brain volume, is there a specific exercise regimen we should be following?

Unfortunately, not all exercise is created equal…

Heidi Goodman suggests that any exercise that raises your heart rate and gets your blood pumping (increasing oxygen levels in the brain) is good exercise!

Exercise Shapes the Brain: 5 Ways

So which exercise is best for improving all these amazing brain functions? Well, anything that is aerobic (meaning to increase oxygen intake) will support the mind!


  1. Running/Walking – based entirely on your ability level
  2. Dancing – not only is it fun, but it gets your blood flowing
  3. Tennis/Badminton/Volleyball/Any Sport
  4. Playing Outside – even in the winter
  5. Jumping Rope
Exercise shapes the brain in a variety of ways, promoting health in the short-term and long-term
Photo by John Fornander

And this is not nearly an exhaustive list (karate, kickboxing, geocaching, extreme shopping spree, etc., etc.) the benefits are the same!

Goodman suggests we work out between 120-150 minutes a week (two hours a week, or 30 minutes Monday – Friday). But, if you’re just starting out, 10 minutes a day is great compared to watching another episode of Stranger Things.

To Sum It All Up

Exercise shapes the brain in a variety of ways. It creates connections, which allows us to think faster and more creatively. It protects against the effects of aging. Exercise lowers stress, which helps combat depression and anxiety, as well as improve sleep.

Generally, it is suggested we exercise from 120 minutes to 150 minutes a week. Aerobic exercise has the most benefits for long-term brain health.

When we exercise, it is okay to start small. If you can only go for a 10-minute walk, it’s 10 minutes that you would not have gotten otherwise. If you start by taking a stroll around the neighborhood or dancing in your living room, no one will give you trouble for not running a marathon.

Take it at your own pace, and remember each step you take is shaping your brain for a brighter, healthier future you.

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