How exercise can impact your memory and learning


What’s the secret to staying mentally sharp and physically fit well into old age? Well, as it turns out, exercise plays a huge role in this equation, especially if you want to be what renowned neuroscientist, Dr. Rhonda Patrick, calls a “super ager”. 

Science tells us that we start losing brain mass when we reach our 20s, which means that you’ll lose about 20% of your brain mass by the time you turn 100, if you make it to that age. 

One of the keys to maintaining brain mass is to constantly push past your comfort zone both physically and mentally by learning new things and challenging yourself. As luck would have it, exercise ticks both of these boxes, and more. 

The Human Brain- The Original Hormone Factory

The great thing about the human brain is that it’s actually an adaptable organ that becomes stronger and more flexible the more you use it. Keep in mind that almost everything that we do, think and feel is governed by how our brain cells communicate and connect with one another by way of neurotransmitters. 

What does this have to do with exercise? Exercise can help to increase dopamine levels, and since your dopamine levels determine your level of motivation, evidence shows that exercise has a direct and positive effect on motivation. 

Exercise also has a direct impact on your serotonin levels, a neurotransmitter that’s responsible for your mood and keeping brain activity under control. Low serotonin levels can lead to anxiousness, depression and stress. That’s why exercise is often recommended for anyone who’s experiencing stress. 

On the other hand, if you’re struggling to stay focused, it probably means that you have low norepinephrine levels. Regular exercise can help to increase your norepinephrine levels, leading to sharper attention and focus. 

The best part is that exercise helps to increase all three of these neurotransmitters without the use of drugs. In addition, exercise can boost memory and learning due to a protein known as brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which gets unleashed during times of increased heart rate in order to increase learning capacity.

Photo by bruce mars on Unsplash

The Mental Benefits Of Exercise

Who would’ve thought that moving your body regularly has immediate, protective and long lasting benefits for the brain? Here are just a few of the observable mental benefits of exercise which should convince anyone to break out their trainers. 

  • Improved Mood:

 One of the first things you’ll notice after going through a particularly challenging workout, is just how great you feel. 

  • Better Memory:

While the mood boosting effects of exercise alone are invaluable, it has also been shown to improve focus and long-term memory

When you workout, the brain releases neurotransmitters, such as noradrenaline and dopamine, which helps the brain to consolidate memories.

This means the neurotransmitter connections that are made during exercise last for a long time after the exercise session.

  • Sharper Focus:

The great thing about exercise is that it has an immediate effect on the brain. A single workout can immediately increase levels of neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine to not only improve your mood, but to sustain focused attention as well. 

The latest neuroscience studies also show improved attention function due to long term exercise.

  • Improved Efficiency:

Studies have also shown that working out can improve your reaction time, which means that you’re going to function more efficiently overall. 

  • It Protects The Brain:

Exercise has also been shown to have protective effects on the brain, because the more you exercise, the bigger and stronger your hippocampus and prefrontal cortex become. Why is this important? Because these are the two parts of the brain that are most vulnerable and their damage can lead to neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia.

Exercise also enables your body to release hormones that help to reduce inflammation and insulin resistance, while stimulating the growth of cells and blood vessels in the brain. 

The best part is that these are all long-lasting effects, as exercise has the ability to change the brain’s anatomy, physiology and function. In fact, during exercise the hippocampus part of the brain generates new brain cells that help to increase its volume to improve long term memory. 

Photo by Matthew LeJune on Unsplash

How Often Should You Exercise To See These Results?

According to Dr. John Ratey in his book Spark, exercising for about 6 hours a week can go a long way to keep your neurotransmitter levels high. Especially if you exercise in the morning before you go to work or school. 

Also the key to unlocking these benefits is regularity, because once you establish an exercise routine, your memory becomes strengthened. 

We usually associate exercise with losing weight and gaining muscle, but what if you could gain so much more by moving your body? As you can see, exercise is the secret to boosting motivation, focus and memory. The best part is that exercise is available for free.

You don’t need to sign up for an expensive gym membership to reap these benefits. As long as you have a pair of trainers or even a bike, a 30-minute to 1 hour circuit around the block everyday or challenging home workouts, are all you need to experience better mood, improved memory and better focus.