For decades, exercising has been associated with a myriad of physical benefits such as strength, agility, weight loss, longevity, and overall health. But what’s often missing from general knowledge is the fact that the benefits of working out extend to another important aspect of quality-of-life: cognitive function. From elevating mood to preserving long-term memory, exercise is proven to lend both brains and brawn to those who take part in it consistently.
Your brain on exercise
Neuroscientists have found that a protein called BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) is released during moderate-intensity exercise, stimulating the growth of new neurons while protecting existing neurons . In the brain, BDNF is active in areas that regulate memory, learning, and high-level thinking skills such as critical thinking and problem-solving. Certain types of physical exercise—specifically, moderate to high intensity—have been shown to increase brain BDNF signaling up to three times as much as a resting state.
Other significant cognitive effects of exercise include improved blood flow in the brain, and modulated neurotransmitters such as dopamine and norepinephrine . There is also strong evidence that individuals who exercise regularly benefit from improved central executive function in both the frontal lobe and hippocampus, which control information processing and attention span among other functions.
The everyday benefits of exercise
It’s clear how much exercise impacts the brain on a neurological level. Here’s how those changes are experienced in terms of behavior and quality of life:
- Facilitates happiness: Exercise alleviates symptoms of many conditions of the central nervous system, most notably major depressive disorder and other mood disorders 
- Self-control: Exercise improves inhibitory control of behavior, which is linked with ADHD and addiction; in fact, exercise therapy has been clinically proven to effectively treat and prevent drug addiction 
- Mood regulation: Exercise positively impacts psychological well-being by reducing anger, stress, anxiety, and even confusion 
- Interpersonal skills: Physically active individuals show much higher cognitive control than their sedentary peers, which includes attention span, motor coordination, sensory perception, and social cognition 
Although moderate-intensity exercise has been shown to improve cognitive function, high-intensity exercise in excess may actually decrease cognitive performance . Interestingly enough, the relationship between exercise intensity and cognitive function isn’t exactly linear. While cognitive function does improve as exercise intensifies, the benefits peak at a certain point, after which the effect is reversed. This peak is referred to as an optimal point, which refers to an individual’s physical tolerance of an exercise workload. As expected, the optimal point is typically higher in athletes than non-athletes. This simply means that in order to experience the most cognitive benefits from physical activity, one should exercise at an appropriate intensity and duration while avoiding overexertion.
Fit for life
Like many physiological functions, BDNF levels decrease with the progression of aging . However, this may be prevented with continued exercise. A number of clinical studies have found that exercise contributes to better cognitive performance and affective experience for people of all ages . Long-term, moderate physical exercise is also attributed to correcting the dysfunction of cognitive function, and may even be useful for older adults . For example, a recent American Academy of Neurology study shows that people in their 70s who exercised regularly showed far fewer signs of aging in the brain than their peers who reported more sedentary habits; in comparison, mentally and/or socially-stimulating activities had almost no affect on cognitive function .
Not only does exercise help cognitive performance, it may also help strengthen memory and fight off dementia throughout the later end of the aging process . One of the most prominent clinical studies on the subject has suggested that “fitness training holds great promise as a neuroprotective intervention during the course of the adult lifespan .” The consensus seems to be that if exercise is prioritized consistently from as early an age as possible, there is a significantly higher chance of preserving both physical health and cognitive function throughout one’s lifespan.
Exercise in the workplace
The numerous benefits of engaging in exercise can even be leveraged to improve the performance and individual well-being of workers. One example of how this can be practically achieved is a 2005 study of shift workers; those who took a brisk 10-minute walk each day showed measurable improvements in memory performance . In addition, multiple studies have found that exercising at moderate to high intensity levels for as little as 5 minutes at a time is associated with positive affect and improved psychological well-being . Longer attention spans, improved mood, and less stress are also among the many benefits of exercise that are much more useful for getting through the work day than a cup of coffee or an energy drink.
Implementing daily exercise in the workplace, even if just for a few minutes, can prove incredibly beneficial for employees in any industry. As health and safety leaders across the country are preparing for an increasingly aging workforce, understanding how exercise contributes to improved memory and general cognitive function in older adults is more important than ever. An occupational exercise program is not only a critical advantage in today’s competitive market, it is also an effective way to protect employee health and sustain productivity.
 American Academy of Neurology. (2012). Exercise May Trump Mental Activity in Protecting Against Brain Shrinkage.
 Hogan, C., Mata, J., & Carstensen, L. (2013). Exercise holds immediate benefits for affect and cognition in younger and older adults. Psychology And Aging, 28(2), 587-594. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0032634
 Kashihara, K., Maruyama, T., Murota, M., & Nakahara, Y. (2009). Positive Effects of Acute and Moderate Physical Exercise on Cognitive Function. J Physiol Anthropol, 28(4), 155-164. http://dx.doi.org/10.2114/jpa2.28.155
 Kramer, A., Colcombe, S., McAuley, E., Scalf, P., & Erickson, K. (2005). Fitness, aging and neurocognitive function. Neurobiology Of Aging, 26(1), 124-127. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.neurobiolaging.2005.09.009
 Lynch, W., Peterson, A., Sanchez, V., Abel, J., & Smith, M. (2013). Exercise as a novel treatment for drug addiction: A neurobiological and stage-dependent hypothesis. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 37(8), 1622-1644. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2013.06.011
 Mura, G., Moro, M., Patten, S., & Carta, M. (2014). Exercise as an add-on strategy for the treatment of major depressive disorder: a systematic review. CNS Spectrums, 19(06), 496-508. http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/s1092852913000953
 Potter, D. & Keeling, D. (2005). Effects of Moderate Exercise and Circadian Rhythms on Human Memory. JOURNAL OF SPORT & EXERCISE PSYCHOLOGY, 27, 117-125.
 Szuhany, K., Bugatti, M., & Otto, M. (2015). A meta-analytic review of the effects of exercise on brain-derived neurotrophic factor. Journal Of Psychiatric Research, 60, 56-64. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jpsychires.2014.10.003
 Tapia-Arancibia, L., Aliaga, E., Silhol, M., & Arancibia, S. (2008). New insights into brain BDNF function in normal aging and Alzheimer disease. Brain Research Reviews, 59(1), 201-220. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.brainresrev.2008.07.007
 Tolppanen, A., Solomon, A., Kulmala, J., Kåreholt, I., Ngandu, T., & Rusanen, M. et al. (2015). Leisure-time physical activity from mid- to late life, body mass index, and risk of dementia. Alzheimer’s & Dementia, 11(4), 434-443.e6. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jalz.2014.01.008
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