Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

More Proof That Aerobic Exercise Can Make Your Brain Bigger

Aerobic exercise stimulates neurogenesis of new neurons in the adult brain.

 Fabio Berti/Shutterstock
Aerobic exercise stimulates neurogenesis.
Source: Fabio Berti/Shutterstock

Every week, it seems there is new cutting-edge research that confirms the brain benefits of physical activity. For example, a study released today reports that sustained aerobic exercise increases the birth of new neurons (neurogenesis) in the brain.

Over ten years ago, when I wrote The Athlete's Way manuscript, I included the revolutionary idea that aerobic exercise could stimulate neurogenesis as a prime source of motivation to inspire people of all ages to be more physically active. In 2005, the idea of neurogenesis was still a radical concept.

Because I'm an athlete and not a scientist, it was serendipitous that I had the inside scoop on neurogenesis early on. Luckily, through conversations with my father, who was a world renowned neuroscientist, and another close friend who worked in the laboratory of Nobel Prize winner Eric Kandel, I was clued into the potential link between neurogenesis and physical exercise before the knowledge became mainstream. On pp. xxi-xxii of The Athlete's Way 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.

Contrary to the original idea that antidepressants (especially serotonin reuptake inhibitors) work solely by keeping serotonin in circulation longer, the latest research shows that the key to their effectiveness may in fact lie in neurogenesis. Like exercise, antidepressants work by stimulating cell structures associated with anti-depression to grow and strengthen.

Whether neurogenesis is caused by antidepressants or exercise, changes in cell growth take time, which explains why it takes two to four weeks for the benefits of exercise or antidepressants to kick in."

This morning, a new study was released which confirms that sustained aerobic activity—such as walking, jogging, biking, swimming, riding the elliptical trainer, etc.—has the power to increase the neuron reserve of the hippocampus via neurogenesis.

For this study, researchers from the Department of Psychology and from the Department of Biology of Physical Activity at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland studied the effects of sustained moderate pace running, high-intensity training, and resistance training on the adult hippocampal neurogenesis in adult male rats.

The February 2016 study, "Physical Exercise Increases Adult Hippocampal Neurogenesis in Male Rats Provided It Is Aerobic and Sustained," was published in The Journal of Physiology. This study offers more proof about the power of aerobic exercise to optimize the structure and functional connectivity of the brain.

In recent years, there have been a variety of reports that physical activity stimulates neurogenesis. However, it remained unclear what specific types of physical activity best promote neurogenesis. According to this new study, it appears that only sustained aerobic exercise improved hippocampal neurogenesis in adult animals. Compared to sedentary animals, the rats who ran voluntarily on a running wheel had 2-3 times more new hippocampal neurons at the end of the experiment.

Conclusion: Aerobic Activity Can Improve Learning and Memory via Neurogenesis

Audrey Bermakin/Shutterstock
Source: Audrey Bermakin/Shutterstock

The researchers conclude that promoting neurogenesis via sustained aerobic exercise may improve learning and memory. Although this study was conducted on animals, the researchers believe that sustained aerobic activity can also increase the neuron reserve of the hippocampus in humans.

If sustained aerobic exercise isn't currently a part of your routine, I hope these findings will motivate you to become more physically active. Increasing your number of brain cells not only improves learning and memory in the short-term, aerobic exercise can also have long-term neuroprotective benefits against cognitive decline as you age.

To read more on this topic, check out my Psychology Today blog posts,

© 2016 Christopher Bergland. All rights reserved.

Follow me on Twitter @ckbergland for updates on The Athlete’s Way blog posts.

The Athlete’s Way ® is a registered trademark of Christopher Bergland.

More from Psychology Today

More from Christopher Bergland

More from Psychology Today