Your gym session doesn't just keep your body on-point—it sharpens your mind too.
Photo: Tang Yau Hoong/Getty Images
You know exercise is great for your body and mood. But new research is showing that it can have an equally profound effect on your thinking skills. "Working out is one of the most powerful things you can do to strengthen the brain," says Wendy Suzuki, Ph.D., a professor of neural science and psychology at New York University. "A single workout triggers physiological changes that improve mental function," she says. (Here are all the benefits of exercise for your overall mental health.)
You don't have to go all out, either. "Taking a walk stimulates the release of serotonin, dopamine, noradrenaline, and endorphins and makes you feel calmer and happier," Suzuki explains. Those effects last for several hours, but if you hit the gym regularly, they may persist long term. Exercise trains you to push yourself when your body is telling you to stop, and that may help you remain calm when under pressure, research from Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, found. Working out also triggers the production of norepinephrine, a neurotransmitter that builds the brain's resilience to stress.
The effects of exercise are so powerful, in fact, that some research indicates it could regulate mood as successfully as antidepressants. A 20-minute bike ride raises levels of glutamate and GABA, two neurotransmitters that help the brain bounce back from negative emotions, a recent study at the UC Davis Medical Center found.
Along with making you happier, your workouts are growing your brain—literally. As you sweat, fatty acids in your system break down into ketone bodies. These molecules activate the gene responsible for producing brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), according to research from New York University. "BDNF spurs the creation of new brain cells, helps nerve cells communicate, and strengthens brain synapses to improve reaction time, memory, and decision-making," says study author Moses V. Chao, Ph.D.
Exercise also increases volume in the hippocampus, an area of the brain that regulates memory, by 2 percent each year, researchers from the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana report. "The new cells and increased neural connections improve long-term and short-term memory," says study author Arthur Kramer, Ph.D. People who didn't exercise lost 1.4 percent of volume in the same area. Bottom line: Being sedentary may be as risky for your mind as having the Alzheimer's genes, he says.
Make your brain the sharpest and strongest it can be with these mind- and muscle-building strategies.
1. Run the Gamut
For the biggest brain benefits, mix up your routine. Cardio produces feel-good neurotransmitters, BDNF, and gray matter, while "resistance training protects white matter—specialized brain cells that pass messages from one part of your brain to another," says Teresa Liu-Ambrose, Ph.D., a professor in the department of physical therapy at the University of British Columbia.
Yoga has its own perks: When combined with meditation, an hour of it a week improves memory, multitasking, and mood, one study found. "Yoga increases connectivity in parts of the brain involved in memory, language skills, and attention," says researcher Helen Lavretsky, M.D. "It also reduces stress and inflammation." (Try this perfectly balanced week of workouts to fit them all into your schedule.)
You'll score extra points for activities that require you to think on your feet, like a dance class; they make your white matter even healthier, according to the journal Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience. "When you learn new moves or memorize choreography, your brain changes—an effect neuroscientists call plasticity," Chao says. "As we grow older, our circuits tend to become less plastic, but doing something different can help stimulate your mind to keep it stronger and sharper."
2. Exercise Early
"Do your workouts when you need the brain boost most—in the morning, to help you focus, learn, and retain new information," Suzuki says. You'll also feel more alert and positive for the day ahead. And push yourself out of your comfort zone: "The perks of a 45-minute moderate or intense workout will last for several hours," she says. (There are even more health benefits of morning workouts that'll convince you to get out of bed.)
3. Take It Outside
Doing your routine outdoors may be even better for your mind. Sunlight increases serotonin, which makes
you feel happy and awake, studies reported in Environmental Science & Technology found. Getting active outside also boosts critical thinking: A study in PLOS One found that after spending three days in the wild, hikers performed 50 percent better on problem-solving tasks.
Getting active outdoors has a recuperative effect as well. "Being in nature allows the prefrontal cortex—the brain's command center—to dial down and rest," says David Strayer, Ph.D., a professor of cognition and neuroscience at the University of Utah. "Your brain needs rest days just as your muscles do, and getting outside delivers that." (That's probably why this one woman found self-love and happiness by getting outside.)
4. Refuel with Brain Food
Eat a snack that has 20 grams of protein and 35 grams of carbs up to 90 minutes after a low- or moderate-intensity workout. If you exercise harder, go for 30 grams of protein and 55 grams of carbs. In addition to repairing your muscles, protein delivers tyrosine, an amino acid that stimulates the production of a neuropeptide that makes you feel more alert, a study in the journal Neuron found. The carbs replenish your stores of glucose for energy for your brain and body, says Michele Olson, Ph.D., a professor of sport science at Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Alabama.
5. Drink More Water
Weigh in before and after your work- out, then drink a pint of water for each pound you lose, suggests Lawrence Armstrong, Ph.D., the director of the Human Performance Laboratory at the University of Connecticut. This
is the most effective way to rehydrate, which is essential if you want to tap into the brain boosts from exercise. Armstrong's research found that even mild dehydration can leave you feeling low and fatigued. "Every cell in our body needs water to function, but the brain appears to be one of the most sensitive to water loss," Armstrong says. (Seriously. Water fixes just about every problem you have.)
6. Find a Workout Buddy
When you exercise with a friend, you tend to push yourself harder and feel happier afterward, research shows. And the social interaction has special benefits: Spending time with a pal increases cognitive performance, according to research at the University of Michigan. Hanging out with others warms up the mental processes needed for other problem-solving tasks, the researchers say. A gym buddy also motivates you to stick to your gym routine, so your brain can continue to grow and get stronger. (There's more! Here are all the benefits of working out with a friend.)