Can Exercise Improve Your BRAIN??
By Nick Norwitz ’18

In our workaholic society, there exists a prevalent misconception: time spent taking care of one’s self is productive time lost. Ironically, this misconception is perhaps most pervasive in institutes of higher education. If you are not a student who would procrastinate exercise to study for an entire weekend before a big exam, I expect you know several students who would.

Within the last decade, an outpouring of studies is beginning to uncover how exercise is important for augmenting human cognition in some very dramatic ways. Much of the research has revolved around a molecule called Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF). BDNF levels in the muscle cells, the bloodstream, and neurons all rise during exercise, starting a cascade of events that leads to the proliferation of entirely new brain cells and improved cognitive performance. What is especially impressive about this effect, is that it is independent of age. Contrary to the popular belief that the brain is only plastic and capable of significant neurogenesis early in life, studies have shown that exercise improves cognition via neurogenesis in both the young and the old.
Graph 1
A 2010 study by Chaddock et al. found that children who exercised had hippocampi (subcortical brain structures important in memory) that were fully 14% larger on average than children who were sedentary. The difference in hippocampal size also translated to cognitive performance. On a relational memory task, the children who exercised far outperformed the sedentary children (d’ is a variable that represents relational memory scores).
Graph 2
A 2014 study by Nascimento et al. found that a 16-week exercise regime significantly improved performance of elderly individuals with Mild Cognitive Impairment (a diagnosis that predicts the development of degenerative neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s) on a MoCA assessment of general cognitive performance. These improvements also correlated with an increase in serum BDNF levels.
Graph 3
So whether you are a devoted doctor trying to solve a difficult case, or a striving student struggling to pass organic chemistry do your brain a favor and don’t skip your next work out.



Chaddock, Laura, Kirk Erickson I., Ruchika Prakash Shaurya, Jennifer Kim S., Michelle Voss W., Matt Vanpatter, Matthew Pontifex B., Lauren Raine B., Alex Konkel, Charles Hillman H., Neal Cohen J., and Arthur Kramer F. “A Neuroimaging Investigation of the Association between Aerobic Fitness, Hippocampal Volume, and Memory Performance in Preadolescent Children.” Brain Research 1358 (2010): 172-83.

Nascimento, Carla Manuela Crispim, Jessica Pereira Rodrigues, Larissa Pires De Andrade, Marcelo Garuffi, Leda Talib Leme, Orestes Forlenza Vicente, Jose Cancela Maria, Marcia Cominetti Regina, and Florindo Stella. “Physical Exercise in MCI Elderly Promotes Reduction of Pro-Inflammatory Cytokines and Improvements on Cognition and BDNF Peripheral Levels.” Current Alzheimer’s Research 11 (2014): 799-805.