Your Brain on Cardio

In addition to the many physical benefits of exercise, such as weight loss, muscle toning, and improved metabolism, exercising is also good for your brain. When you exercise, all of the increased blood flow to your brain provides additional oxygen and glucose which help improve the performance, memory, and attention of your brain, to name a few. Your muscles also send hormones to the brain which play a role in brain cell growth, mood regulation, and learning.

Mental Benefits

Research has shown that when you exercise, your brain releases feel good hormones, such as endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin.   Endorphins are neurotransmitters which cause a euphoria-like state. Similarly, Serotonin regulates mood balance and feelings of happiness. A deficit of Serotonin has been linked with depression. Lastly, Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure center. Exercise helps stimulate the production of dopamine, which can help improve learning and attention.  As an added bonus, the positive effects of these hormones can last long after the workout out is over.

Memory and Learning

Research shows that when you exercise, certain parts of your brain can change. The hippocampus, which is in charge of memory and learning, literally grows. It’s the only part of the brain that can make new brains cells, and exercise facilitates this process.  People who exercise for at least an hour a day, for 3 days per week, have exhibited improved memory and brain function. Some studies have shown that problem solving and memory skills increased by 20% just by running on a treadmill before a test.

Ability to pay Attention

Adults and children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or general inattentiveness have shown improvement in their ability to focus and pay attention if they are allowed to exercise before class or doing the task at hand. One study showed that children who performed aerobic physical activity, such as tag or “sharks and minnows,” 30 minutes every day before school for 12 weeks showed greater improvements in attention and focus than those in the sedentary group (which participated in classroom art projects).


A Duke University study showed that when compared to a group that only took an anti-depressant drug, and a group who took the drug and also exercised, people who just exercised (no drug) experienced less depression and recurrences of depression during and post study than those who just took the drug or took the drug and exercised.  Exercise is not a cure all for depression, however, it may be a good option for many people to add to their routine to offset negative mood.

How much do I need to do?

Research has shown that brain-related benefits (such as increased memory and learning) yield from as little as 120 minutes of moderate aerobic activity per week. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC), as well as many other health organizations, recommends that adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate-vigorous physical activity each week. If you break it down, that means exercising 30 minutes per day, 5 days a week in order to meet health recommendations and receive any brain-related benefits.

Diversify your Exercise Routine

It’s important to switch up your cardio routine. Just as your body and your muscles can adapt to doing the same workout over and over again, so does your brain. You need to continue to change up your routine so that your body, and therefore your brain, continues to be challenged and receive the same benefits. Physical gain=mental gain.  Sometimes it’s a matter of slightly modifying what you’re already doing. For example, if you always run at the same pace, try adding in some interval training. 


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