Exercise and Your Brain

By Nathan Chambers, Recent ASU Nutrition Student 

With an ever-aging population, more and more time is being spent studying diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia. We know that an unhealthy diet can worsen, or even encourage the formation of these neurological problems. For example, a high carbohydrate diet has been linked as a possible causation of memory impairment and loss1, while a diet high in unsaturated fats, specifically from fish, can aid in the preservation of brain function1.


While diet is certainly a huge factor health, it is interesting that something as easy, not to mention cost effective, as exercise seems to be overlooked. There are several studies which indicate that aerobic exercise, even in an older population, can stimulate new neural growth and help protect against neurodegenerative disease2.


One randomized, controlled study involving patients already diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease incorporated a 2 hour per week exercise regime over the course of two years3. While cognitive decline was still present, it was significantly slower than in the control group, and patients also suffered fewer physical injuries– likely due to the increased muscle strength and stability also granted through physical activity3. Caregivers also reported having less stress and fewer complaints in the test group.


Kirk Erickson, of the Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition, states that a decrease in the rates of smoking, hypertension, obesity, diabetes, and physical inactivity would lower the amount of Alzheimer’s disease victims by 3 million4. Most, if not all of these factors, and especially physical activity are modifiable factors– these are things that we can change or control to improve our health situation.


Erickson’s team not only found a slower rate of decline but found that hippocampal volume increased in patients undergoing a physical training plan4. The hippocampus is related to the creation of new memories and is one of the first parts of the brain which comes under attack in Alzheimer’s patients.


If knowing that exercise is great for heart health and weight management isn’t enough to get you moving, this compelling evidence that exercise has a positive effect on brain health should be!


In a world where automation is taking over everything, it is easier to become sedentary and harder to find the time to incorporate some physical activity into our days.


But, is it really so hard to be physical? Here are some tips to get you moving:


If you work at a desk all day, it can be especially difficult to make sure you are moving enough. But working at a desk doesn’t have to be a detriment. Investing a little bit of money in a standing or adjustable desk is a simple way to make sure you aren’t completely sedentary– even while you’re working.


Take a break every 45 minutes or so. Just stand up and walk around the building for 5 or 10 minutes.


If you take public transportation, or even if you drive, intentionally get off the bus early or park at the end of the lot so you have to walk farther to get to work.


Get a dog and let him take you on walks; but only if  your living arrangements and bank account are adequate.


When you’re watching TV get up at every commercial break and walk around the house, do some stretches, or jog in place.


Find a partner or take a class. Being in a group situation is an excellent motivator, and if you have a partner you have a built-in accountability system.



These are just a few simple ways to get you moving. There are a million other things you can do to incorporate physical activity in an interesting way. Start biking, hiking or swimming… anything to get you moving!


We already know that exercise helps us to lose weight. We know that obesity is the number one factor in so many diseases. We have heard that exercising gives us endorphins and helps improve mood. Now we know that exercise actually has a positive influence on our brains and memory function. If you aren’t already committed to an exercise program, find one now!


For more information on ways to exercise, how to eat healthy, and how to stay hydrated, visit Fill Your Plate!







  • Pearlmutter, David and Loberg, Kristin (2013). Grain Brain.
  • Hooghiemstra, A. M., Eggermont, L. H. P., Scheltens, P., van der Flier, Wiesje M, Bakker, J., de Greef, Mathieu H. G, . . . Scherder, E. J. A. (2012). Study protocol: EXERcise and cognition in sedentary adults with early-ONset dementia (EXERCISE-ON). Bmc Neurology,12(1), 75-75. doi:10.1186/1471-2377-12-75
  • Pitkälä KH, Pöysti MM, Laakkonen M, Tilvis RS, Savikko N, Kautiainen H, Strandberg TE. Effects of the Finnish Alzheimer Disease Exercise Trial (FINALEX)A Randomized Controlled Trial. JAMA Intern Med.2013;173(10):894-901. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2013.359
  • Erickson, K. I., Weinstein, A. M., & Lopez, O. L. (2012). Physical activity, brain plasticity, and alzheimer’s disease. Archives of Medical Research, 43(8), 615-621. doi:10.1016/j.arcmed.2012.09.008
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