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Executive Function

Study: Aerobic Exercise Leads to Remarkable Brain Changes

Aerobic exercise preserves gray matter volume and improves executive function.

Fabio Berti/Shutterstock
Source: Fabio Berti/Shutterstock

Every week, it seems there's more neuroscientific research that affirms the psychological and cognitive benefits of aerobic exercise. This week is no exception. Later today, at the 102nd annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America in Chicago, Laura D. Baker will present cutting-edge research showing that adults with mild cognitive impairment who participated in moderate-to-vigorous aerobic exercise four times a week (over a six-month period) experienced a significant increase in brain volume and improved executive function.

Baker and her colleagues at Wake Forest School of Medicine (WFSM) in North Carolina, used a new MRI brain imaging technique to illustrate that one group of study participants who participated in aerobic exercise—including treadmill, stationary bike or elliptical training—experienced greater gains in brain volume and function than those in another group who only did stretching exercises.

'Aerobic Exercise Leads to Remarkable Changes in the Brain'

A detailed analysis of their MRI data revealed that both the aerobic and stretching groups experienced brain volume increases in gray matter regions, including the temporal lobe, which is linked to short-term memory. However, when compared to the stretching group, the aerobic activity group had larger preservation of overall brain volume, increased local gray matter volume, and greater improvements to cognitive function.

In an RSNA press release about her upcoming lecture, Baker said, "Even over a short period of time, we saw aerobic exercise lead to a remarkable change in the brain.” As wonderful as stretching is for flexibility and as a cornerstone of the meditation-mindfulness aspects of yoga...stretching alone doesn’t seem to have the profound ‘miracle-gro’ power of aerobic exercise to stimulate increases in gray matter brain volume.

That said, the researchers emphasize: even though aerobic exercise can lead to significant improvements to someone's executive function after six months, any type of physical activity (such as yoga) has brain benefits and improves cognition.

In a 2015 study, Baker and her team at WFSM found that participants who performed moderate-to-vigorous aerobic exercise (most commonly using a treadmill) showed increased blood flow in the memory and processing centers of the brain. Aerobic exercise was also correlated with improvements in attention, planning, and organizing abilities of executive function. In a statement to WFSM, Baker said,

“These findings are important because they strongly suggest a potent lifestyle intervention such as aerobic exercise can impact Alzheimer’s-related changes in the brain. No currently approved medication can rival these effects.”

Aerobic Exercise Is Powerful Medicine

I've been researching and writing about the power of aerobic exercise to optimize psychological well-being, improve cognitive function, and boost creative capacity for a long time.

In the early twenty-first century, the correlation between physical exercise and brain health was still a radical concept with limited empirical evidence. Nonetheless, over a decade ago, I had a hunch this link was important based on my own life experience and conversations with my father, Richard Bergland, who was neurosurgeon and neuroscientist.

So, while writing The Athlete's Way manuscript in 2005, I included the revolutionary discovery that aerobic exercise could stimulate neurogenesis (the growth of new neurons) via the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF).

I framed the discovery of BDNF as a prime source of motivation to inspire people of all ages and walks of life to stay more physically active. On p. xxi of The Athlete's Way: Sweat and the Biology of Bliss I wrote, "Exercise triggers new cell growth in the hippocampus (memory center), in the cerebellum (motor function), and in the frontal lobes (executive function). The growth of new neurons is called neurogenesis.”

Since 2011, as a Psychology Today blogger, I’ve written countless blog posts that present a groundswell of empirical evidence that illuminates the multiple benefits of aerobic exercise, mindfulness-meditation, strength training, and yoga. As a public health advocate, my goal is to use science-based discoveries to motivate and inspire readers across the country (and around the world) to be more physically active on a regular basis.

This morning, after reading about the new research by Laura Baker et al. in the predawn hours...I was inspired to go for a long jog at sunrise to think about how this research fits into the bigger picture. While running, I played a game of trying to compile a mental list of all the blog posts about the brain benefits of aerobic exercise I've written for Psychology Today in 2016. I couldn't remember all of them. But, I did come up with a 'baker's dozen' summarized below.

13 Psychology Today Blog Posts That Will Motivate You to Sit Less and Move More

1. What Makes Aerobic Exercise Like Miracle-Gro for Your Brain?

2. More Proof That Aerobic Exercise Can Make Your Brain Bigger

3. Want to Bulk Up Your Brain? Burn Some Calories Through Exercise

4. Aha! Aerobic Exercise Facilitates the Free Flow of Thought

5. Aerobic Activity Stimulates Neurogenesis (Birth of Neurons)

6. Why Is Poor Balance Strongly Correlated With Dementia Risk?

7. Physical Activity Boosts Brain Power and Cerebral Capacity

8. Enhanced Cerebellum Connectivity Boosts Creative Capacity

9. The Neuroprotective Powers of Exercise Should Motivate You

10. Neuroscience Pinpoints Unique Way Exercise Fights Depression

11. Can Being a Couch Potato Shrink Your Brain?

12. Running May Help Repair Some Types of Brain Damage

13. Daily Physical Activity Boosts Brain Power and Self-Control

Hopefully, this abundance of empirical evidence will serve as a source of motivation that helps you kickstart an exercise regimen that includes at least 30 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA) most days of the week and becomes a lifestyle habit.

If you are currently committed to staying physically active, the bibliography below can serve as an extensive source of science-based motivation to help you stick with it, and keep doing what you’re doing. Anytime you need a reminder of the importance of squeezing in a quick workout—especially on days when you’re feeling uninspired or crunched for time—please click on one of the scientific studies listed below for positive affirmation.


Nokia, M. S., Lensu, S., Ahtiainen, J. P., Johansson, P. P., Koch, L. G., Britton, S. L. and Kainulainen, H. (2016), Physical exercise increases adult hippocampal neurogenesis in male rats provided it is aerobic and sustained. J Physiol, 594: 1855–1873. doi: 10.1113/JP271552

Cyrus A. Raji, David A. Merrill, Harris Eyre, Sravya Mallam, Nare Torosyan, Kirk I. Erickson, Oscar L. Lopez, James T. Beckere, Owen T. Carmichael, H. Michael Gach, Paul M. Thompson, W.T. Longstreth, Jr., Lewis H. Kuller. Longitudinal Relationships between Caloric Expenditure and Gray Matter in the Cardiovascular Health Study. Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, March 2016 DOI: 10.3233/JAD-160057

Aki Nikolaidis, Pauline L. Baniqued, Michael B. Kranz, Claire J. Scavuzzo, Aron K. Barbey, Arthur F. Kramer, and Ryan J. Larsen. Multivariate Associations of Fluid Intelligence and NAA. Cerebral Cortex, March 2016 DOI: 10.1093/cercor/bhw070

Moon et al. Running-Induced Systemic Cathepsin B Secretion Is Associated with Memory Function. Cell Metabolism, 2016 DOI: 10.1016/j.cmet.2016.05.025

Szofia S. Bullain, Maria M. Corrada, Shawna M. Perry, Claudia H. Kawas. Sound Body Sound Mind? Physical Performance and the Risk of Dementia in the Oldest-Old: The 90 Study. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, 2016; 64 (7): 1408 DOI: 10.1111/jgs.14224

J. Z. Willey, H. Gardener, M. R. Caunca, Y. P. Moon, C. Dong, Y. K. Cheung, R. L. Sacco, M. S. V. Elkind, C. B. Wright. Leisure-time physical activity associates with cognitive decline: The Northern Manhattan Study. Neurology, 2016; DOI: 10.1212/WNL.0000000000002582

Manish Saggar, Eve-Marie Quintin, Nicholas T. Bott, Eliza Kienitz, Yin-hsuan Chien, Daniel W-C. Hong, Ning Liu,
Adam Royalty, Grace Hawthorne, and Allan L. Reiss Changes in Brain Activation Associated with Spontaneous Improvization and Figural Creativity After Design-Thinking-Based Training: A Longitudinal fMRI StudyCereb. Cortex first published online June 15, 2016 doi: 10.1093/cercor/bhw171

Jens Bangsbo, Peter Krustrup, Joan Duda, Charles Hillman, Lars Bo Andersen, Maureen Weiss, Craig A Williams, Taru Lintunen, Ken Green, Peter Riis Hansen, Patti-Jean Naylor, Ingegerd Ericsson, Glen Nielsen, Karsten Froberg, Anna Bugge, Jesper Lundbye-Jensen, Jasper Schipperijn, Symeon Dagkas, Sine Agergaard, Jesper von Seelen, Charlotte Østergaard, Thomas Skovgaard, Henrik Busch, Anne-Marie Elbe. The Copenhagen Consensus Conference 2016: children, youth and physical activity in schools and during leisure time. British Journal of Sports Medicine, June 2016 DOI: 10.1136/njsports-2016-096325

Tan, ZS; Spartano, NL; Beiser, AS; DeCarli, C; Auerbach, SH; Vasan, RS; et al.(2016). Physical Activity, Brain Volume, and Dementia Risk: The Framingham Study.. The journals of gerontology. Series A, Biological sciences and medical sciences. UCLA: 1620959. Retrieved from:

R. J. Maddock, G. A. Casazza, D. H. Fernandez, M. I. Maddock. Acute Modulation of Cortical Glutamate and GABA Content by Physical Activity. Journal of Neuroscience, 2016; 36 (8): 2449 DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3455-15.2016

Nicole L. Spartano, Jayandra J. Himali, Alexa S. Beiser, Gregory D. Lewis,Charles DeCarli, Ramachandran S. Vasan and Sudha Seshadri. Midlife exercise blood pressure, heart rate, and fitness relate to brain volume 2 decades later. Neurology, 2016 DOI: 10.1212/WNL.0000000000002415

Matías Alvarez-Saavedra, Yves De Repentigny, Doo Yang, Ryan W. O’Meara, Keqin Yan, Lukas E. Hashem, Lemuel Racacho, Ilya Ioshikhes, Dennis E. Bulman, Robin J. Parks, Rashmi Kothary, David J. Picketts. Voluntary Running Triggers VGF-Mediated Oligodendrogenesis to Prolong the Lifespan of Snf2h-Null Ataxic Mice. Cell Reports, 2016; 17 (3): 862 DOI: 10.1016/j.celrep.2016.09.030

Julia L. Allan, David McMinn, Michael Daly. A Bidirectional Relationship between Executive Function and Health Behavior: Evidence, Implications, and Future Directions. Frontiers in Neuroscience, 2016; 10 DOI: 10.3389/fnins.2016.00386

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