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Dr. Williams for U.S. News & World Report: How Exercise Benefits Brain Health


Exercise has long been known and frequently touted as beneficial to your waistline and your heart health. Yet, in more recent years, the benefits of exercise on the brain and mental health have become a more mainstream topic of conversation.

Still, many people may not understand why those brain benefits of physical activity are so remarkable and profound. The neurological science behind the scenes of this phenomenon is technical and fascinating. But you don’t need to be a neurologist to understand the how and why of exercise’s effects on your brain.

Effects of Exercise on Your Brain

To begin explaining the positive effects of exercise on your brain, a simple understanding of something called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF, is helpful. Without getting too technical, BDNF is a substance found in the brain that helps keep your brain cells healthy while encouraging new brain cell growth and facilitating communication between cells.

Some have likened BDNF to fertilizer for the brain. High levels of BDNF in the brain aid in neuroplasticity, helping our brains grow, change and adapt more nimbly in response to the world around us. Low BDNF levels, on the other hand, are associated with depression, anxiety, memory problems and brain degeneration over time.

So, if BDNF is such a good thing for the brain, how can we produce more of it? As it turns out, BDNF is created when the brain is stimulated. Many historical studies focused on brain stimulation with “brain game” activities like word problems and crossword puzzles. While these activities are suitable, newer and compelling research suggests that physical activity, especially aerobic exercise, can be the ultimate BDNF brain booster.

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