Why exercise can benefit your brain as well as your body

Spread the news, exercise is enormously beneficial for both your brain and your physical health.

While the benefits for our physical health of getting active are well-known, there’s a wealth of research to show that it’s also great for the brain. And the good news is you don’t need to embark on a punishing daily fitness programme to see some positive effects.

Older male and female jogging together outdoors and looking happyCredit: Shutterstock/Lordn

Exercise and brain health – how one benefits the other

 A 2023 study carried out by University College London has suggested exercising at least once a month at any time during adulthood may lead to better cognitive functioning in later life.

The research looked at data from 1,417 people who had completed surveys about their exercise activity over three decades. At the age of 69, they took cognitive tests.

Dr Sarah James, lead author for the study, says the outcome of this research indicates that even light levels of activity (getting active just one to four times a month) can still have a positive effect on your brain.

“What we also found was that people who had never been active before, and then started to be active in their sixties, also appeared to have better cognitive function than those who led sedentary lives.”


Unsurprisingly, the most positive results were seen in people who stayed physically active throughout their lives. “The effect is cumulative,” Dr James adds, “so the longer an individual is active, the more likely they are to have higher later-life cognitive function.”

The link between dementia prevention and exercise is also well-established. A 2020 study published in the Journal of Health and Sport Science found that physical activity could have the potential to delay a third of dementia cases.

Comprehensive previous research into dementia prevention, carried out by 28 of the world’s leading dementia experts for the Lancet Commission, identified several key factors that can help to reduce your risk. Among these they recommended “keeping cognitively, physically and socially active in midlife and later life”.

What are the neurological benefits of exercise?

The exercise and brain health connection is particularly strong, says Professor Hana Burianová, a cognitive neuroscientist at Bournemouth University, who is also an adviser to Healthspan.

“Physical activity reduces stress and anxiety, and supports the generation of neurons [the nerve cells in the brain that send and receive signals to and from the rest of the body] and oxygenation in the brain,” she explains.

“Also, regular physical activity activates the glymphatic system which clears away pathogens in the brain that include amyloid plaques, which can be a cause of dementia.”

A 2017 study published in the journal NeuroImage suggested that exercise can also help to improve memory function in addition to benefiting brain health in older adults. Researchers looked at the brain scans of 737 people with an average age of 66 to examine the effects of aerobic exercise including walking, stationary cycling, and treadmill running.

The study found that exercise significantly increased the size of the brain area associated with memory and cognitive function.

“When you exercise, you produce a chemical called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which may help to reduce the deterioration of the brain,” explains Dr Joseph Firth, lead author of the study, now a UK Research and Innovation future leaders fellow at the University of Manchester.

“Our data further showed that the main brain benefits are due to aerobic exercise slowing down the deterioration in brain size. In other words, exercise can be seen as a maintenance programme for the brain.”

Exercising outdoors offers additional brain health benefits

Professor Burianová adds that you should avoid doing exercise that you find boring.

“Staying active helps support activity in the prefrontal cortex, which is important for all brain networks that support our cognition, such as memory, concentration and emotional regulation,” she explains. “But it’s best to choose physical activity that engages your attention and is diverse and novel. For example, tai chi, gardening and walking in nature. This will have a more beneficial impact on the brain and its plasticity, as well as the regulation of hormones and neurotransmitters.”

Exercise is also great for your mental health, and you could benefit even more by taking it outdoors.

“Further to the positive effects of exercise, doing it outdoors in natural environments has been shown to have an even greater effect on mood,” says Rebecca Scott, physiology regional lead at Nuffield Health.

“A review study reported that exercising outdoors was associated with greater feelings of revitalisation and positive engagement, increased energy, and decreases in tension, confusion, anger and depression.”


Sam Titheridge, a health and wellbeing physiologist at Nuffield Health, adds that the feelgood effects of exercise should not be underestimated either.

“Exercise stimulates the release of endorphins, those chemicals that are responsible for the famous runner’s high,” he explains. “These endorphins flood your brain and create a sense of euphoria. Chemicals such as serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine all increase, and this helps to reduce stress levels.

“Frequent exercise has also been attributed to less incidences of depression, suggesting a potential protective effect through biochemical and psychosocial factors that are related to brain changes and reduced inflammation.”

Three ways to mix up your exercise routine

Go for a walk or run in nature and play the “five things I can spot” game

While you exercise in a blue (near the coast) or green (park or woodland area) space, really tap into your senses by identifying five things you can see, hear, touch and smell.

Be at one with the ground

Taking your exercise mat outdoors and doing the occasional yoga session in your garden is a great way to change things up. When your feet come into contact with grass, concrete or sand, it’s known as grounding – and it’s particularly good for your mental health and your brain.

Design your own outdoor circuit

Choose five exercises, such as star jumps, walking lunges or squats (it’s important that you enjoy doing each exercise as this will help to stave off boredom) and devise a routine of your own. You can try doing it in different locations each time, so you’re always engaged in what you’re doing.

Julie Penfold

Written by Julie Penfold she/her


Julie Penfold has been a specialist health and wellbeing journalist for more than 15 years and has been a finalist in three prestigious health and medical journalism awards during that time.

She has written for a wide variety of health, medical, wellbeing and fitness magazines and websites. These have included Running, TechRadar, Outdoor Fitness, Be Healthy, Top Sante, Doctors.net.uk, Primary Health Care, Community Practitioner, CareKnowledge and The Guardian’s Social Care network.

Away from work, Julie is a huge Sunderland fan, loves watching football, athletics and swimming (live whenever possible!) and is a long-term vegetarian. She also loves to run, swim and practise yoga.

Previously, she loved to race too but since 2018, this has been firmly put on the backburner due to her having back-to-back sports injuries, both of which required subsequent surgery. Julie was gearing up to a return to racing after five years, but a further injury has hampered her imminent plans. Instead, recovering well is top of her list at the moment.

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