Exercise for brain health is more than a pathway to physical fitness; it’s a vital element for nurturing both body and brain. While its physical benefits like improved strength, endurance, and cardiovascular health are widely recognized, the profound impact on mental health is equally noteworthy.

Engaging in regular physical activity is not just about building muscle or endurance; it’s a journey towards enhancing cognitive functions and emotional wellbeing. Exercise is a powerful tool in managing stress, elevating mood, and invigorating mental energy. It’s known to sharpen cognitive abilities, bolster memory, and alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression. Moreover, it plays a defensive role against cognitive decline, including dementia, making it beneficial for individuals of all ages and fitness levels.

Key Takeaways:

  • Holistic Health: Exercise enhances both body and brain health, reducing stress and cognitive decline.
  • Neurochemical Boost: Physical activity increases endorphins, improving mood and mental clarity.
  • Long-Term Brain Health: Regular exercise boosts brain performance, neuron growth, and reduces dementia risk.
  • Accessible Exercise: ‘Exercise snacks’ and VILPA offer easy, varied ways to integrate daily physical activity.
  • BDNF Enhancement: Exercise increases BDNF levels, enhancing cognitive functions and slowing neurodegeneration.

When you exercise, your brain releases endorphins, those feel-good chemicals that not only enhance mood but also clear the fog of anxiety and depression. This biochemical boost helps maintain focus and mental sharpness, contributing to an alert and active mind throughout the day.

But the benefits of exercise extend beyond immediate cognitive enhancements. Regular physical activity is a cornerstone in promoting long-term brain health.

It fosters increased blood flow to the brain and stimulates the growth of new neurons and neural connections, thereby reducing the risk of cognitive decline as we age.

Importantly, integrating exercise into your life doesn’t have to be daunting. Current research highlights the effectiveness of brief, intermittent bursts of activity. These ‘exercise snacks’ can be seamlessly woven into your daily routine, offering brain and health benefits without the feel of a chore.

Stay tuned as we delve into practical strategies to incorporate exercise into your day, enhancing both your mental and physical wellbeing.

How Exercise & Brain Function Are Connected

Engaging in regular physical activity has a profound impact on cognitive function. Studies have shown that exercise can lead to improvements in various cognitive domains, including memory, attention, processing speed, and executive function.

It’s not just about delaying cognitive decline in older adults; exercise also enhances brain function in individuals of all ages, contributing to better learning, problem-solving abilities, and emotional regulation.

Types of exercises & their effect on the brain

Physical Activity                       Cognitive Benefits

Aerobic Exercise                     Improves memory, attention, & overall cognitive function

Strength Training                   Enhances executive function & cognitive flexibility

Yoga                                          Reduces stress, anxiety & increases mindfulness/focus

Dancing                                    Boosts processing speed, multitasking, & coordination

Exercise, Mood & Focus

When you exercise, it stimulates the release of neurotransmitters, such as dopamine and serotonin, which can enhance focus and attention.

Endorphins, often known as “feel-good” hormones, play a significant role in how exercise improves mood and mental clarity. These natural chemicals, released during physical activity, act as stress relievers and mood lifters.

They are responsible for the often-cited “runner’s high,” leading to feelings of euphoria and a general sense of wellbeing. By boosting endorphin levels, it can help combat anxiety and depression, making it a powerful ally in maintaining not only physical but also mental health.

BDNF, Exercise and Brain Health

What is BDNF?

When it comes to brain health, BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor) plays a vital role. BDNF is a protein that promotes the growth and survival of neurons, forming the foundation for optimal brain function.

Exercise has been shown to significantly boost BDNF levels in the brain, leading to enhanced cognitive function and overall brain health.

Why is BDNF important?

BDNF is essential for neuroplasticity, which involves the brain’s ability to adapt and rewire itself. It supports the growth of new neurons and the strengthening of neural connections, crucial for memory, learning, cognitive function., and slowing down neurodegeneration.

Maintaining optimal BDNF levels is crucial for promoting brain health and preventing cognitive decline.

Best Exercises and Strategies to Increase BDNF Levels

Exercise intensity and duration affect BDNF production. More exercise = higher BDNF levels.  Most people think they need a lot of time to get the benefits of exercise.  However, research shows, especially for BDNF, that you can get a nice boost in quick 3-5 minutes bursts of high intensity activity.

Intensity & Duration Matters

  • Feel the Burn: When you really push yourself in a workout, your body produces lactate. This isn’t just muscle burn – it’s a signal for your brain to make more BDNF.
  • HIIT for the Win: High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) is a superstar at increasing BDNF. Think short, super-intense bursts of exercise, like fast cycling.
  • Longer Workouts, Bigger Benefits: A good 40-minute workout at a moderate to vigorous pace can pump up your BDNF levels by a third. Even 30 minutes can give your memory a 24-hour boost.
  • Quick Spike, Lasting Effects: The BDNF boost from exercise doesn’t stick around long, but its benefits on your brain’s growth and health each time you exercise

Depending on what you like to do for exercise, you can find a way to incorporate the above into your workouts. Below are some examples.

Exercises  to Improve BDNF

  • Walking: Warm up, then do 20 seconds at 90=95% fast walking, slow walk 10, repeat 8x, walk regular pace for 5-10 minutes, repeat the above for another 8x.
  • Outdoor Running: Hit the trails or streets for a 30-minute run, aiming for 80-85% of your max heart rate. Do this 2-3 times a week.
  • HIIT Cycling: Warm up, then do seven 45-second cycling sprints at 90-95% max heart rate, with 15-second rests. Cool down afterward. Repeat 2-3 times a week.
  • HIIT 3 minute body weight training: Warm up, body weight squats x 1 minute, rest 15 sec,  push-ups x 1 minute, rest 15 sec, planks x 1 minute, rest 15sec. 
  • Swimming HIIT: 25 yd/25m/1 length at 90-95% max heart rate, rest at wall 5-10 seconds (depending on fitness) and repeat for a total of 8. Repeat 2-3x per week.

Other Strategies to Improve BDNF

In addition to specific exercises, incorporating activities like dance, yoga, and meditation and into your routine can further increase BDNF production. These practices have been shown to have a positive impact on brain health and cognitive function.

  • Dance Your Way to a Smarter Brain: Older adults who danced for six months saw their brain volumes grow in memory-related areas and BDNF levels rise.
  • Yoga’s Power: Studies showed a threefold increase in BDNF levels with consistent practice. Participants also reported a 60% decrease in depression and anxiety levels.
  • Dry Sauna use: Research shows a 10 week regiment of regular heat exposure at 176°F increased levels more than light intensity exercise.  Higher gains in health when the exposure was for 20 minutes per session (175-180F), 3-4x per week.

“The body benefits from movement, and the mind benefits from stillness.”

Quick Ways to Get  Exercise into Your Day

Integrating exercise into your daily routine is crucial for promoting brain health and reaping the cognitive benefits. By incorporating simple strategies, you can make exercise a regular part of your day and optimize your brain function.  First we need to talk about VILPA & then exercise snacks.

What is  VILPA (Vigorous Intermittent Lifestyle Physical Activity)

VILPA stands for Vigorous Intermittent Lifestyle Physical Activity. It refers to integrating short bursts of vigorous physical activity into daily life activities, rather than structured exercise routines. VILPA is about making everyday actions, like walking or climbing stairs, more intense and energetic.

How VILPA Differs from Regular Exercise

Unlike regular exercise, VILPA is not about setting aside specific time for a workout. Instead, it’s about incorporating higher intensity into the activities you’re already doing.

For example, choosing to take the stairs vigorously instead of the elevator, or walking briskly to a destination instead of at a leisurely pace. It’s about seizing opportunities within your daily routine to move your body more energetically.

Benefits for Body and Brain

VILPA offers significant health benefits, similar to those gained from more traditional forms of exercise. Studies have shown that even 3-4 minutes of VILPA-like activity per day can lead to substantial reductions in all-cause mortality risk, including cardiovascular and cancer mortality.

For the brain, these vigorous bursts can enhance cognitive function, improve mood, and reduce the risk of cognitive decline. VILPA is particularly beneficial as it can be easily incorporated by individuals who don’t engage in regular exercise, offering a practical way to improve health.

Incorporating VILPA into Daily Life

  • Choose Active Options: Opt for stairs over elevators, or walk instead of drive for your groceries, or walk in to get your coffee instead of going through the drive through.
  • Make It Vigorous: Add intensity to everyday activities. For instance, walk or cycle faster, or carry a backpack for added resistance. At the airport, walk next to the movable walkway.
  • Use Technology for Reminders: Smartwatches or apps can prompt you to engage in VILPA, helping you accumulate minutes of activity throughout the day.
  • Break Up Sedentary Periods: Use VILPA to interrupt prolonged sitting, such as doing a minute of high knees or burpees.
  • Be Mindful of Opportunities: Recognize and seize moments in your day where you can add vigor, like walking faster to a meeting or energetically playing with children.

VILPA is a flexible, accessible approach to physical activity that can be easily integrated into anyone’s lifestyle, offering substantial health benefits with minimal time commitment.

Exercise Snacks: Small, Consistent Efforts for Big Gains

One effective strategy is to incorporate exercise snacks into your daily routine. Exercise snacks refer to short, manageable bursts of physical activity spread throughout the day.

Unlike traditional workouts, which are often lengthy and require a dedicated time slot, exercise snacks can be as brief as a few minutes and are designed to fit seamlessly into your busy schedule.

The concept is based on the idea that small, frequent doses of exercise can cumulatively lead to significant health benefits. These benefits include improved cardiovascular health, better blood sugar regulation, enhanced mood, increased cognitive function and neuroplasticity.

These are a form of  VILPA but usually more planned out. These small, consistent efforts can accumulate throughout the day and provide numerous benefits for brain health.

For example, you can take short walks during your breaks at work, do bodyweight exercises during TV commercial breaks, or use the stairs instead of the elevator.

These small increments of physical activity help increase blood flow to the brain, release endorphins, and improve brain performance.

Tips for Adding Exercise Snacks Into Your Day

Incorporating exercise snacks into daily life can be straightforward and flexible. Here are some strategies:

  1. Micro-Workouts: Integrate short, intense workouts, like a quick set of squats, lunges, high knees or jumping jacks, during breaks in your day.
  2. Active Commuting: If possible, use part of your commute for physical activity, like walking or cycling.
  3. Deskercises: Include simple exercises like seated leg lifts, desk push-ups, or stretching while at your desk.
  4. Stair Climbing: Opt for stairs over elevators whenever possible for a quick cardiovascular boost.
  5. Walking Meetings: Convert some meetings to walking ones, if feasible.
  6. Household Activities: Turn mundane tasks like cleaning or gardening into more vigorous activities to get your heart rate up. These are good to do if you are working from home.  Gets you away from your computer for a short time (3-4 minutes) which helps your muscles & brain function better.
  7. Dance to your favorite song for 3-4 minutes.
  8. TV Breaks: Do walking lunges or squats at commercial breaks during your favorite show.

The key is to make these activities vigorous—and that’s different for different people—it has to be vigorous for you.

The Long-Term Effects of Exercise on the Brain

Regular exercise has long-term effects on countering cognitive decline and protecting against memory-related diseases. Engaging in physical activity reduces the risk of conditions like Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, which are characterized by cognitive decline and memory loss.

Exercise improves blood flow to the brain, promotes the growth of new neurons, and enhances overall brain function.

Consistent physical activity also benefits aging cognitive functions by maintaining cognitive flexibility, attention, and memory. By prioritizing exercise, you can proactively protect your brain health and reduce the risk of cognitive decline.

Preventing Memory-Related Diseases with Regular Exercise

Regular exercise can play a crucial role in preventing memory-related diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

These conditions are characterized by cognitive decline, memory loss, and difficulty performing everyday tasks. By engaging in physical activity, you can reduce the risk of developing these diseases and maintain cognitive function as you age.

How Consistent Physical Activity Benefits Aging Cognitive Functions

Consistent physical activity has numerous benefits for aging cognitive functions. It helps to maintain cognitive flexibility, which is the ability to switch between different tasks, adapt to new situations, and think creatively.

Regular exercise also improves attention and helps to sustain focus for longer periods. Additionally, physical activity supports memory function, enhancing both short-term and long-term memory. By incorporating regular exercise into your routine, you can promote optimal cognitive function as you age.

Practical Tips for Staying Committed to Exercise for Brain Health

Staying committed to exercise can sometimes be challenging. However, with the right strategies and mindset, you can overcome these challenges and maintain a long-term exercise routine for optimal brain health.

Setting Realistic Exercise Goals for Improved Brain Function

Setting realistic exercise goals is crucial for improving body and brain function. It’s essential to create achievable goals that align with your fitness level and busy schedule. By setting realistic expectations, you can avoid feeling overwhelmed or discouraged, increasing the likelihood of staying committed in the long run.

  • Assess Current Fitness Level: Understand where you are starting from to set achievable goals. If you’re new to exercise, begin with low-intensity activities like walking or gentle yoga.
  • Define Clear, Achievable Objectives: Set specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound (SMART) goals. For instance, aim to walk 30 minutes a day, five days a week, rather than a vague goal like “exercise more.”
  • Focus on Brain Health Benefits: Remember that your goal isn’t just physical fitness but also enhancing cognitive functions like memory, focus, and mood regulation by increasing BDNF.
  • Start Small and Gradually Increase: Begin with shorter, less intense sessions and gradually increase duration and intensity. This approach helps prevent burnout and injury.
  • Incorporate Variety: Engage in different types of exercises to keep your routine interesting and target various aspects of brain health. Include aerobic exercises, strength training, balance and coordination activities, and flexibility exercises.

Tracking Progress and Celebrating Milestones

Tracking your progress can help with staying motivated and recognizing improvements. It also reminds you of the positive impact exercise on your body and brain.

Whether it’s reaching a specific exercise target, completing a challenging workout, or noticing enhanced cognitive abilities, take the time to acknowledge and reward yourself for your dedication and progress.

Here are some tips:

  1. Use a Journal or App: Document your exercise routines, durations, and how you feel after each session. Note any improvements in mood, sleep quality, or cognitive functions like memory or concentration.
  2. Set Mini-Goals and Celebrate Achievements: Break your main goal into smaller milestones. Celebrate when you reach these mini-goals, like completing a certain number of workout sessions or reaching a new level of intensity.
  3. Monitor Cognitive Improvements: Pay attention to any changes in your mental health and cognitive abilities. Celebrating improvements in these areas can be a significant motivator.
  4. Seek Feedback: If possible, get periodic assessments from a fitness or health professional to objectively measure your progress.
  5. Overcoming Challenges and Staying Motivated

By setting realistic goals, tracking progress, and employing strategies to stay motivated, you can maintain a consistent exercise routine that benefits both your physical and cognitive health.

  1. Identify and Address Barriers: Recognize what impedes your exercise routine, whether it’s time constraints, lack of motivation, or physical challenges, and find ways to address these issues.
  2. Find an Exercise Buddy or Group: Having a partner or group can increase accountability and make exercise sessions more enjoyable.
  3. Create a Routine: Establish a regular schedule for your workouts. Consistency helps to form a habit, making it easier to stick to your exercise plan.
  4. Stay Flexible: Be prepared to adapt your exercise routine to accommodate changes in your schedule or lifestyle.
  5. Focus on Enjoyment: Choose activities you enjoy. Exercise shouldn’t feel like a chore; finding joy in your workouts can significantly enhance adherence.
  6. Remind Yourself of the Benefits: Keep in mind the long-term benefits of exercise on brain health, especially during times when motivation is low.
  7. Reward Yourself: Set up a reward system for sticking to your exercise routine. This could be as simple as a relaxing bath after a week of workouts or a small treat.


In conclusion, exercise is much more than a path to physical health; it’s a key to mental vitality. Studies consistently show how regular activity improves memory, focus, and emotional well-being.

Exercise is your brain’s ally, helping to keep your mind sharp as you age. It’s not just about fitness goals; it’s about a lifestyle that balances physical and mental health.

So, as you engage in any physical activity, remember you’re also nurturing your brain. Each step, stretch, or lift is an investment in a more vibrant, mentally strong you. Let’s make our overall well-being a priority and enjoy the journey to a healthier, happier life.


What are the cognitive benefits of exercise and brain health?

Exercise can improve cognitive function, enhance memory, and reduce anxiety and depression. It also reduces the risk of cognitive decline and memory-related diseases.

How does exercise affect neuroplasticity and brain function?

Regular exercise promotes neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to adapt and reorganize itself. It stimulates the growth of new neurons and strengthens neural connections, leading to improvements in memory and cognition.

Can exercise help with memory improvement?

Yes, routine physical activity has been shown to enhance memory function. Exercise promotes the growth of new neurons and strengthens neural connections, improving overall brain function and memory.

Does exercise play a role in focus enhancement?

Yes, exercise can enhance focus and attention. It increases blood flow to the brain and stimulates the release of neurotransmitters. Regular exercise can reshapes the brain, optimizing its function and enhancing focus.

Can exercise help with stress reduction and emotional balance?

Yes, engaging in physical activity reduces stress and promotes emotional balance. Exercise stimulates the release of endorphins, improving mood and reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression.

How does exercise contribute to building a healthy lifestyle for brain function?

Regular exercise improves brain health by promoting the growth of new neurons, strengthening neural connections, and enhancing overall brain function. It also improves cardiovascular health, ensuring proper blood flow to the brain.

What are exercise snacks and how can they benefit brain health?

Exercise snacks are short bursts of physical activity throughout the day. They can provide numerous benefits for brain health, such as improving cognitive function and reducing the risk of cognitive decline.

How does BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor) benefit brain health?

BDNF plays a crucial role in promoting the growth and survival of neurons. Physical activity boosts BDNF levels, leading to enhanced brain health and cognitive function.

Can exercise help in countering cognitive decline and memory-related diseases?

Yes. Engaging in regular exercise reduces the risk of cognitive decline, including conditions like Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Exercise improves blood flow to the brain and enhances brain function, supporting long-term cognitive health.

How can individuals stay committed to exercise for brain health?

Setting realistic exercise goals, tracking progress, and celebrating milestones are practical strategies for staying committed to exercise and optimizing brain health. These practices can help individuals overcome challenges and maintain a long-term exercise routine.