Can Physical Exercise Improve Cognitive Abilities?

Improvement in brain function associated with moderate physical activity has been noticed in both growing children and older adults. The cognitive benefits of physical exercise also last for decades. Parents and teachers can take cue from these findings and ensure they encourage kids to be more active and weave in sports and games within the curriculum.

What happens inside your brain when you go for a jog?

Scientists have decoded how physical activity affects the brain. A study published in 2009 has shown that exercise directly improves the flow of blood in the brain and enhances the functionality of various neurotransmitters involved in cognitive processes. This study also points to the mood-enhancing effects of physical exercise that may indirectly exert a positive effect on cognitive functioning.

According to the findings of other researchers, endurance exercise triggers the production of a muscle protein called FNDC5 in the body. This protein is released into the bloodstream as a molecule called irisin. The presence of this molecule stimulates the genes responsible for learning and memory. Right now, scientists are somewhat unclear just how the mechanism works, but they believe that exercise triggers the production of BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor). BDNF regulates inflammation, improves the transmission of signals within cells, and regulates the functions of the synapses.

BDNF is also believed to exert neuroprotective benefits that stall cell death. Scientists are already toying with the idea of developing drugs that can trigger its development to manage the symptoms of neurodegenerative conditions like dementia and Alzheimer’s disease or those caused by stroke and depression.

The effect of exercise on children

The benefits of exercise are evident during developmental phases.

In one study, children who performed a thirty minute routine of aerobic exercise showed considerably more improvement in reaction and choice-response tasks after the physical activity than their peers who did not exercise. These benefits of being physically active should encourage parents to make their wards spend more time outdoors than in front of the television or the computer monitor. Educational policymakers should also take note and design curricula that let children be more active in school.

The lasting effects of exercise on cognitive development

The cognitive benefits of exercising seem to last for a very long time. Research data published last year have demonstrated that individuals who had greater cardio-respiratory fitness (CRF) during young adulthood than their peers also tend to exhibit better cognitive functioning during their middle years (aged 43-55 years).

The subjects, aged around 25 years, took part in one treadmill test then and another one 25 years later. Those who exhibited the least decline in CRF (indicating they have more or less retained their fitness levels by being active) also exhibited greater cognitive abilities. The subjects were tested for verbal memory, executive functioning (working memory capacity, analytical and critical reasoning skills, multitasking flexibility, planning, executing, and problem-solving ability), and psychomotor speed (the association between thinking and doing).

The above findings should encourage individuals to continue with their exercise regimes even when they are bogged down by the familial pressures, professional responsibilities, and social obligations that typically beset a person during the middle years of his life.

The effects of physical activity on the cognitive ability of older adults

Cognitive decline is usually associated with aging. The risk of developing neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s disease and dementia also increases with age. So it is not surprising that scientists were keen to know if regular exercise can stem the effects of or prevent neurodegenerative diseases in older adults. Their findings bring hope.

In 2014, Finnish scientists published their data showing that being physically active during middle-age can prevent the onset of dementia later on. The scientists involved in this study suggest that leisure-time physical activity (LTPA) performed at least twice a week yielded maximum neuroprotective effects for people across ages, sex, and varying degrees of genetic susceptibility. People who are active in their middle years and even those who begin exercising after hitting mid-life have lower risk of developing dementia and Alzheimer’s disease in their old age than those who do not exercise. However, it is interesting to note that the cognitive benefits of LTPA in mid-life were most prominent in overweight and obese persons. It can be concurred that most of these individuals led sedentary lives up till then.

How much exercise results in cognitive benefits?

The results of the above-mentioned studies are definitely encouraging. After all, we all want to remain productive and mentally alert as the years go on.

An earlier-mentioned study has pointed out the specific cognitive benefits of LTPA, which is not same as the rigorous training you usually undertake if you intend to take part in competitive sports. Another study indicates that only moderate amounts of physical activity can bring on cognitive benefits. Acute physical exercise actually decreases these effects. According to this study, there is an inverted, U-shaped relationship between physical exercise and cognitive improvement. So beware! Don’t overdo it at the gym if you want to get excellent marks on your next exam.

The findings from the above-mentioned studies definitely prove the case for being physically active. These results should also encourage scientists to explore drug therapies that can act on the brain in the ways similar to running around the park, lifting weights, or swaying to music.


Ellemberg, D., & St-Louis-Deschênes, M. (2010). The effect of acute physical exercise on cognitive function during development Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 11 (2), 122-126 DOI: 10.1016/j.psychsport.2009.09.006

Kamijo, K., Hayashi, Y., Sakai, T., Yahiro, T., Tanaka, K., & Nishihira, Y. (2009). Acute Effects of Aerobic Exercise on Cognitive Function in Older Adults The Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 64B (3), 356-363 DOI: 10.1093/geronb/gbp030

Kashihara, K., Maruyama, T., Murota, M., & Nakahara, Y. (2009). Positive Effects of Acute and Moderate Physical Exercise on Cognitive Function Journal of PHYSIOLOGICAL ANTHROPOLOGY, 28 (4), 155-164 DOI: 10.2114/jpa2.28.155

Numakawa, T., Richards, M., Nakajima, S., Adachi, N., Furuta, M., Odaka, H., & Kunugi, H. (2014). The Role of Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor in Comorbid Depression: Possible Linkage with Steroid Hormones, Cytokines, and Nutrition Frontiers in Psychiatry, 5 DOI: 10.3389/fpsyt.2014.00136

Tolppanen, A., Solomon, A., Kulmala, J., Kåreholt, I., Ngandu, T., Rusanen, M., Laatikainen, T., Soininen, H., & Kivipelto, M. (2014). Leisure-time physical activity from mid- to late life, body mass index, and risk of dementia Alzheimer’s & Dementia DOI: 10.1016/j.jalz.2014.01.008

Wrann, C., White, J., Salogiannnis, J., Laznik-Bogoslavski, D., Wu, J., Ma, D., Lin, J., Greenberg, M., & Spiegelman, B. (2013). Exercise Induces Hippocampal BDNF through a PGC-1?/FNDC5 Pathway Cell Metabolism, 18 (5), 649-659 DOI: 10.1016/j.cmet.2013.09.008

Zhu, N., Jacobs, D., Schreiner, P., Yaffe, K., Bryan, N., Launer, L., Whitmer, R., Sidney, S., Demerath, E., Thomas, W., Bouchard, C., He, K., Reis, J., & Sternfeld, B. (2014). Cardiorespiratory fitness and cognitive function in middle age: The CARDIA Study Neurology, 82 (15), 1339-1346 DOI: 10.1212/WNL.0000000000000310

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Viatcheslav Wlassoff, PhD

Viatcheslav Wlassoff, PhD, is a scientific and medical consultant with experience in pharmaceutical and genetic research. He has an extensive publication history on various topics related to medical sciences. He worked at several leading academic institutions around the globe (Cambridge University (UK), University of New South Wales (Australia), National Institute of Genetics (Japan). Dr. Wlassoff runs consulting service specialized on preparation of scientific publications, medical and scientific writing and editing (Scientific Biomedical Consulting Services).
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