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  • Writer's pictureValerie Bailey

Healthy Body, Healthy Mind: The Cognitive Effects of Exercise

Updated: Oct 17, 2023

Fall is traditionally a time when we try to make change in our lives. Many of us talk about how the upcoming holidays will be healthier times, how we desire to make significant changes, to do things differently, and to make better decisions. This seems to be especially true when it comes to our physical health and wellbeing. While a desire to improve physical health is certainly important, cognitive wellbeing is equally vital. So this fall, add establishing a solid and sustainable plan to maintain and / or improve your brain health, not just today, but also throughout the coming months, and the years to come, to your list of resolutions.


Have you ever heard of the term “sharpen your saw?” Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, calls the seventh habit “Sharpening the Saw.” He says that sharpening the saw means preserving and enhancing the greatest asset we have. What is that greatest asset, you ask? Our brains.

But how do we protect that greatest asset? Simply put – by keeping it intact. We keep our brains intact by using them, and by improving our cognitive functioning through physical (aerobic) exercise. Cognitive functions are brain-based skills designed to carry out any task, from simple ones to the most complex, including, to name just a few, how we learn, remember, solve problems, make decisions, and pay attention, as well as with motor coordination. Traditionally, we think of exercise as a way to get our bodies into shape – to build stronger abs, to lose weight, to tighten our core, and so forth – all of which are, of course, important to a healthy lifestyle. But the relationship between physical exercise and the brain is equally as crucial.


Physical exercise, particularly activity that is aerobic in nature, improves our cognitive functioning in three areas: memory, perception, and attention (concentration). While strength training is important to maintain strength, endurance, balance, and flexibility, aerobic exercise has been shown to have more of an effect on the brain, aiding us in our thinking, learning, problem-solving, and reasoning, as well as improving our emotional balance.

For example, one study published recently in Psychological Science examined the effects of aerobic fitness training on older adults, using a randomized control design (124 older adults between the ages of 60 and 75 years who were randomly assigned to either a six-month intervention of walking – aerobic training – or flexibility – non-aerobic – training). Results indicated that the walking group, but not the flexibility group, improved their performance across a series of tasks that tapped different aspects of cognitive control, indicating that physical activity is beneficial to cognitive performance during aging. This example supports the insight that regular aerobic exercise will go a long way in keeping our brains healthy.

Furthermore, scientists have long speculated that an active lifestyle may serve to spare age-related loss in regions of the brain that support top-down cognitive control. One neuroscientist, Dr. Wendy Suzuki, reported in a recent TED talk that “exercise is the most transformative thing you do for your brain … to improve cognitive abilities such as learning, thinking, memory, focus, and reasoning – all of which can help you become smarter and live longer.” She describes how exercise boosts brain health by decreasing feelings of anxiety, improving focus and concentration, promoting the growth of new brain cells, and protecting the brain from aging and neurodegenerative diseases.

Exercise helps to create new mitochondria – the nerve centers of cells that play a key role in the aging process and age-related diseases – which give us energy. Thus, exercise may quite possibly be the best antidote for mitochondrial aging.

More exercise means more energy for the body, which also means more energy for the brain, keeping it more alert and focused and able to do much more. Hence, our brains require a physical workout to reduce our risk of cognitive decline, including dementia. Some studies have shown that cognitive decline is almost twice as common among adults who are inactive compared to those who are active.

More energy also means that we can work for longer periods of time without a drop in productivity and with less stress. One particular study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine found that workers who exercised moderately produced higher quality work and performed better in their jobs than those who did not.

When we establish a regular and consistent workout regime, increases in efficiency and productivity are noticeable within weeks of implementing an exercise plan. Since exercise helps us to combat stress, battle fatigue, soak in more information, and stimulate creativity, our overall wellbeing is improved. And when we feel happier and more energized, we are more efficient and effective at all tasks in life, which leads to a renewed self-confidence.

Many of us perceive exercise as a luxury, an activity we’d like to do if only we had more time. But we need to view exercise as something we need to do – for our bodies and our minds. After all, it’s what keeps our brains, hearts, and lungs alive. It’s time we start thinking of physical activity as part of our life’s work itself. The alternative – little or no exercise – can affect our daily lives in a number of ways, such as processing information more slowly; forgetting more often; and getting easily frustrated, making us less effective at our jobs and harder to get along with for our colleagues, just to name a few.

While you may have already established your New Year’s resolutions to eat better, spend less, etc., know that it’s not too late to amend that list a bit. Go ahead and make a resolution to “sharpen your saw.” Your brain will thank you.

Valerie Bailey is a contributor to the Review from Durham, North Carolina. She runs Coach Val's Endurance Coaching and Personal Training.

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1 Comment

Aug 29, 2023

Great article

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