How Exercise Can Boost Brain Health

  • New research shows how exercise promotes neuronal activity in the hippocampus.
  • The hippocampus is an area of the brain that is involved with the storage of long-term memory.
  • The study’s findings suggest that chemical signals from contracting muscles may trigger a signaling pathway that boosts brain function and may help treat neurological disorders in the future.
  • The next steps for research involve important clinical questions such as the types of exercise that are most effective – aerobic vs anaerobic – and how much and for how long.

Growing evidence supports the idea that exercise is beneficial for both the body and mind.

A recent study in the journal Neuroscience suggests a potentially stronger connection between brain health and physical activity. The researchers investigated how muscles’ chemical signals, generated during movement, influence neuronal development in the brain. Specifically, they examined the impact of exercise on the hippocampus – the brain region responsible for long-term memory storage.

Dr. Andrew Newberg, a neuroscientist and research director at the Marcus Institute of Integrative Health and a physician at Jefferson University Hospital, highlighted the study’s significance: “This study pioneers the exploration of the fundamental mechanism through which physical activity or exercise could influence the brain. The well-known benefits of exercise on brain health, mood enhancement, and cognition are substantiated. This study reveals the potential role of chemical signals from muscle cells in influencing neurons, providing insight at a deeper molecular level.”

Physical activity and the hippocampus


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 as when a neuron is more likely to be activated by a stimulus.

In at least one 2022 study

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In a study published in Translational Psychaitry, researchers identified a recurring trait in Alzheimer’s disease characterized by “abnormally elevated neuronal activity,” a factor correlated with heightened cognitive decline.

Ki Yun Lee stated that the recent study’s discoveries could have significant implications for comprehending and addressing neurological disorders like epilepsy, which arises from neuronal hyperexcitability.

Addressing astrocytes might involve investigating strategies that specifically target these cells to modulate their activity, thereby curbing hyperexcitability in neurons. This endeavor holds the potential to unveil fresh avenues for tackling neurological disorders, Lee added.

Newberg emphasized the necessity for further research to authenticate these preliminary findings, acknowledging the research’s intriguing nature. He elaborated on the overarching observation: muscle cells’ influence on astrocytes plays a role in affecting hippocampal cells that are pivotal to cognitive function and memory networks in the brain. The intricate cascade of events spotlighted by this study provides insight into how the brain responds to the stimulus of exercise.

What this means for the future of brain health

The study reinforces the mounting evidence of exercise benefiting both physical and cognitive health. Specifically, it proposes that chemical signals from muscles might activate a pathway enhancing cognitive function, holding potential for neurological disorder treatments. Lee indicates these findings can influence the development of exercise routines targeting muscle-astrocyte-neuron interactions for optimal cognitive health.

Newberg underscores exercise’s significance in brain health programs for patients, while also posing questions about exercise types, duration, and effectiveness.



According to new research, exercise enhances parts of the brain including neuronal activity in the hippocampus.

The results of this study suggest that chemical signals from contracting muscles may trigger a signaling pathway that improves brain function and could potentially be beneficial for treating neurological health conditions.

Regarding the upcoming stages, experts suggest exploring the efficacy of different exercise types, such as aerobic versus anaerobic, while also scrutinizing the frequency and duration of these activities.

Why exercise is effective

Why exercise appears to work may have to do with the benefits of exercise to cardiovascular health.

“Healthy blood pressure and cardiovascular well-being offer brain benefits, as suggested by Rebecca Edelmayer, PhD, Alzheimer’s Association’s Director of Scientific Engagement. This is due to improved blood vessel function and enhanced oxygen distribution, reducing cognitive decline.

Exercise could combat dementia by enhancing synapse connections, optimizing cell walls for nutrient exchange, and boosting vascular health. Essentially, it clears pathways for efficient blood supply to vital tissues,” highlighted Baker.

What the study revealed

In the new study, the participants all had the early-onset genetic mutation.

Their physical activity was classified as either low or high level based on whether they got at least 150 minutes of exercise per week or not.

Those with high levels of physical activity were diagnosed with milder dementia 15 years later than those with lower levels. Typically, those with that mutation get Alzheimer’s between age 30 and 60.

That 150-minutes figure may not be a magic number, but it does likely take sustained exercising to see effects, Baker said.

She said the current consensus so far is about 30 to 40 minutes three to four times a week.

How to reduce the risk

The Alzheimer’s Association endorses exercise as a top lifestyle habit to reduce dementia risk, along with a high-fruit-and-vegetable diet, sufficient sleep, social engagement, and cognitive stimulation through learning or puzzles. The organization is conducting a substantial two-year study on the most beneficial lifestyle factors. Baker emphasizes the positive side effects of these actions. Even if exercise doesn’t significantly slow cognitive decline, it still offers numerous other benefits, she noted.


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