Brain-friendly Exercise

I spend a lot of time on airplanes, sitting. When I get off a flight, I’m excited to move my body – to get that post-exercise bliss. My most creative thinking seems to happen when I exercise or immediately following it. And there’s a good reason why.Exercise is great for the brain. Some of that benefit comes from endorphins, those chemicals that dull pain, reduce depression and make us feel good[1]. However, there’s much more to the effect of exercise on the brain.2 And, when it comes to the brain, not all exercise is created equal.Turns out you can Dance your way to a younger brain!

Exercise gives you a bigger brain!

As we age, the volume of brain shrinks. Exercise can increase the volume of the hippocampus (the main part of the brain) by 2%, reducing age-related brain loss by 1-2 years.3 So if you continue to exercise while you age, it’s possible that you can spare brain loss. The increased volume associated with exercise also correlates with increased memory.3

Exercise fights Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s

This is especially important for diseases, like Parkinson’s, which result in decreased brain volume, called hippocampal atrophy.4 Exercise has been shown to prevent or attenuate the progression of Parkinson’s as well as Alzheimer’s.5 While brain volume hasn’t been investigated, because exercise increases oxygen and the development of new blood vessels, new neurons can be made, and new connections between existing neurons.

Exercise goes beyond endorphins

While endorphins are what we’ve heard of from exercise, exercise also induces endocannabinoids.6 Like endorphins, endocannabinoids can reduce depression and anxiety, and are released after physical activity.

Another neurochemical, brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF) which increases memory increases with a good workout as well. Interestingly, BDNF increases more in men than in women, suggesting men may get more brain benefit from exercise than women.

Exercise also increases serotonin and dopamine, neurotransmitters that make us feel happy and satisfied.6 When you’re starting to feel fatigued during a workout, likely your dopamine levels are dropping, but serotonin stays high. Both serotonin and dopamine are good for the brain and necessary for memory and learning.

Dance your way to a younger brain – its the best!

While it’s long been known that both aerobic exercise and non-aerobic exercise are good for brain health, a recent study demonstrated that dancing may be the best exercise for memory.7

Dancing combines aerobic activity with the need to think (cognitive demand), and sensory perception (responding to the environment)

Keep in mind that the study that demonstrated the benefits of dancing looked at the effects of mambo, cha cha, and grapevine, not slow dancing to Al Green, or shaking your booty to Bruno Mars. Specific dances require people to think through the steps. I’m not saying that grooving to your own beat isn’t good for you, it just hasn’t been studied.

Exercise and Parkinson’s

One of the best things people with Parkinson’s disease can do is exercise. Not only can exercise improve cognition, it can also help with motor defects seen in Parkinson’s, including walking, muscle strength, and balance.5

Exercise decreases the aggregation of alpha-synuclein, the protein that causes damage in the brain of people with Parkinson’s[8]
All of this exercise discussion is making me want to go for a walk. Fortunately, I can see the sun – a rare occurrence for February in the Pacific Northwest. I think it’s a sign. Later!



  1. Craft LL, Perna FM. The Benefits of Exercise for the Clinically Depressed. Prim Care Companion J Clin Psychiatry. 2004;6(3):104-111.
  2. W SL and K. Changes in beta-endorphin levels in response to aerobic and anaerobic exercise. – PubMed – NCBI. Accessed February 5, 2018.
  3. Erickson KI, Voss MW, Prakash RS, et al. Exercise training increases size of hippocampus and improves memory. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2011;108(7):3017-3022. doi:10.1073/pnas.1015950108
  4. al CR et. Parkinson’s disease is associated with hippocampal atrophy. – PubMed – NCBI. Accessed February 5, 2018.
  5. Paillard T, Rolland Y, de Souto Barreto P. Protective Effects of Physical Exercise in Alzheimer’s Disease and Parkinson’s Disease: A Narrative Review. J Clin Neurol Seoul Korea. 2015;11(3):212-219. doi:10.3988/jcn.2015.11.3.212
  6. Heijnen S, Hommel B, Kibele A, Colzato LS. Neuromodulation of Aerobic Exercise—A Review. Front Psychol. 2016;6. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01890
  7. Rehfeld K, Müller P, Aye N, et al. Dancing or Fitness Sport? The Effects of Two Training Programs on Hippocampal Plasticity and Balance Abilities in Healthy Seniors. Front Hum Neurosci. 2017;11. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2017.00305