Brain Gains: How Exercise Turns Up Your Mental Muscle

When you think of exercise, muscle growth and increased stamina are probably the first benefits that come to mind. However, there’s an organ that also improves when you work out, and that’s your brain.

Exercise Generates New Brain Cells

Recent studies have found that when you engage in consistent exercise, your brain gets stronger alongside your muscles. This means that if you want to keep your brain durable and robust as you age, exercise is one of the most reliable methods to achieve this. Physical activity not only keeps your brain healthy but also contributes to the growth of new brain cells.

Research has shown that animals who exercise regularly had significant generation of new brain cells and better blood supply to the brain. The new cells were also found in an area of the brain responsible for memory and vulnerable to aging, called the dentate gyrus within the hippocampus. The dentate gyrus starts to deteriorate as we age, which causes our cognitive abilities to decline. The memory center in this area won’t function as effectively as it used to, leading us to forget things like where we put our car keys or whether we turned off the stove.

Here’s where exercise comes in – regular physical activity helps generate new cells in the dentate gyrus, making it more resilient and preserving your mental abilities as you grow older.

Exercising Your Way to a Healthy Brain

Creating new cells is not the only benefit your brain enjoys when you exercise. Physical activity also facilitates positive changes in the existing cells. These changes involve mitochondria, which play a central role in producing the energy that fuels physiological functions.

In general, the more mitochondria a cell has, the more functional it is. This means it has the capacity to get more done. For instance, a muscle strengthened by resistance exercises (like weight lifting) will have more and healthier mitochondria compared to muscles that aren’t active and stay “couch-bound.” The more mitochondria present in a muscle cell, the stronger the cell will be. This makes sense, as mitochondria generate the energy each cell needs to move and exert force.

Increased healthy mitochondria also contribute to greater endurance, longer life expectancy, and reduced risk for conditions like heart disease and diabetes.

Better Mitochondria, Happier Brain

Like muscle cells, brain cells also function better when they have larger numbers of healthy mitochondria. Researchers at the University of South Carolina found that exercise not only stimulates the growth of mitochondria in brain cells but also does so in the same way as it does in muscle cells.

This increased growth of mitochondria in brain cells may be one reason why exercise can help improve memory and relieve depression. Having more mitochondria also makes your brain more resistant to fatigue, similar to how extra mitochondria in muscles can help athletes maintain their stamina.

Another benefit for the brain is that exercise may help prevent neurodegenerative diseases, such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, which are linked to malfunctioning mitochondria.

Keeping Your Brain Young

A brain that’s “exercised” regularly will stay healthier and stronger, keeping us mentally sharp even as we age. Medical experts now tout exercise as a powerful tool for preventing and treating a wide range of diseases. So the next time you need an energy boost or a mental jolt, consider hitting the gym or going for a jog—along with your cup of coffee. Your mitochondria will thank you.