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Exercise and Growing Connections in the Brain

ISSA, International Sports Sciences Association, Certified Personal Trainer, ISSAonline, Exercise and Growing Connections in the Brain

It’s all in your head…or it could be with a regular fitness routine!

Here’s what I love to hear from a client:

“When I’m on a good exercise routine, everything else in life just seems to run smoother.”

Have you ever heard something similar? As a fitness fanatic yourself, you know exactly what that client means, but have you ever wondered why?

Why is it that doing deadlifts, jumping on boxes, and doing interval cardio—among many other things—helps us sleep better, be more productive at work, and just better handle life’s curve balls?

There are so many benefits to working out regularly: cardiovascular health, muscle tone, strength…the list goes on and on.

But how does fitness affect the most important organ in the body? The one that literally houses and controls everyday actions, reactions, fears, triumphs, plans, and procrastinations?

So how does working out and training affect the brain?

Click to view full infographic or here to download PDF and print for your clients.

ISSA, International Sports Sciences Association, Certified Personal Trainer, ISSAonline, Exercise and Growing Connections in the Brain Infographic

Exercise Actually Grows Connections in the Brain

Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to change and grow by generating new neurons and producing or preserving links between pre-existing neurons.1

Think of how easily and effortlessly toddlers and young children learn everything they need to know: language, coordination, and the complexities of culture. That’s all thanks to neuroplasticity and it decreases as we get older.

Since neuroplasticity could be called the fountain of brain youth, neuroscientists have been studying anything that could possibly improve this brain quality in adults. It’s a short but important list.

The good news for us in the training business is that exercise is one of those things that improves neuroplasticity.

In order to grow new neurons, create new connections, and make old connections stronger, the brain needs brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that belongs to the group of compounds known as growth factors.

A recent meta-analysis summarized what we know about exercise and BDNF by combining the findings of 29 studies and 1,111 participants:2

  • Both aerobic exercise (>50% V02 Max) and strength training (Moderate Intensity – >50% of 1RM) have a small positive effect on BDNF after 30 minutes.
  • These effects significantly increase if the participant engaged in regular (3 times per week or more) exercise.
  • These spikes in BDNF post-exercise also caused an elevation in resting BDNF for participants who exercised regularly and consistently.

Though much more research is needed to understand how to maximize BDNF through program design (type, duration, and intensity of exercises for any given client), we can make a very basic, but specific, conclusion:

Completing a 12-week program that consists of at least 3 workouts per week will spike your client’s internal levels of BDNF and significantly enhance the brain’s ability to learn new skills, retain information, and be creative.3

Exercise Also Grows the Cerebellum

Researchers have used laboratory animals to determine how exercise affects the cerebellum—an important region of the brain for all kinds of functions. They have found that when a lab rat exercises as much as it wants for eight weeks, the cerebellum grows very large. When a rat is restricted to three exercise sessions on the rodent wheel for eight weeks, the cerebellum is a normal size.

When an unlucky lab rat is restricted from exercise for eight weeks—when it is forced to be sedentary—its cerebellum shrinks to almost half the normal size.4,5

The cerebellum is of serious interest in neuroscience because not only is it responsible for motor functions—walking, squatting, drinking tea, and so on—but also responsible for the “smooth functioning” of emotion, language, memory, and social interaction.6 Small cerebellums have been correlated with the development of Alzheimer’s and dementia.7

According to research, the biggest effect on the size and functioning of the cerebellum is…exercise, of course.

Teach your client a new—or less often used—exercise during each session, and encourage regular activity more than three days per week, and you help your him or her to grow and improve the density of the cerebellum. And by doing this, you help your client reduce the risk of age-related deterioration in emotion, language, memory, and social interaction.

Exercise Can Give You Greater Willpower

Have you ever noticed that clients stick to their nutrition plans much better when they are doing their exercise homework too?

One reason is cognitive dissonance.8 This is the idea that we experience discomfort when we act inconsistently. That is, psychologically, it bothers your client to workout hard for an hour, investing in health and fitness, and then to eat ice cream on the couch while watching Friends reruns shortly thereafter. Thanks to cognitive dissonance, regular exercise can help your client make better decisions about nutrition and diet.

But cognitive dissonance only accounts for a small amount of the powerful effect exercise has on self-control.9

In the brain, the pre-frontal cortex (PFC) is responsible for numerous executive functions. One of these is the regulation of undesirable behaviors or self-control.

Exercise has been shown to increase the grey matter in the brain in a number of areas, particularly in the PFC.10 Just three half-hour bouts per week of moderate intensity cardio for 12 weeks increased PFC activity in adults.11

Train the Body, Train the Brain

As trainers, we encourage and motivate our clients with exercise programs to achieve a number of positive changes in:

  • Body composition,
  • Strength,
  • Performance,
  • Injury prevention, and
  • Endurance

But one organ benefits from exercise in a way that affects all areas of our clients’ lives. As long as you’re holding clients accountable to at least a three half-hour per week program for 12 weeks, you are helping them change their brains in positive ways.

Remind your clients next time they’re breathing hard and sweating that you are giving them increased BDNF for a younger mind, a denser cerebellum for better aging, and larger PFC for greater willpower that will help them in all areas of their lives.

Alexander Van Houten


1. Pascual-Leone A.; Amedi A.; Fregni F.; Merabet L. B. (2005). "The plastic human brain cortex". Annual Review of Neuroscience. 28: 377–401.

2. Tarumi T, Zhang R (January 2014). "Cerebral hemodynamics of the aging brain: risk of Alzheimer disease and benefit of aerobic exercise". Front Physiol. 5: 6. doi:10.3389/fphys.2014.00006. PMC 3896879. PMID 24478719.

3.Gomez-Pinilla F, Hillman C (January 2013). "The influence of exercise on cognitive abilities". Compr Physiol. 3 (1): 403–428. doi:10.1002/cphy.c110063. PMC 3951958. PMID 23720292.

4. Larsen JO, Skalicky M, Viidik A. Does long-term physical exercise counteract age-related Purkinje cell loss? A stereological study of rat cerebellum. J Comp Neurol 428: 213–222, 2000.

5. Isaacs, K. R., Anderson, B. J., Alcantara, A. A., Black, J. E., & Greenough, W. T. (1992). Exercise and the brain: angio-genesis in the adult rat cerebellum after vigorous physical activity and motor skill learning. Journal of Cerebral Blood Flow Metabolism , 12 , 110–119

6. Ratey, John. MD. Spark. The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. Jan 2008. Print.

7. Woodruff-Pak DS, Foy MR, Akopian GG, Lee KH, Zach J, Nguyen KP, Comalli DM, Kennard JA, AgelanA, Thompson RF. Differential effects and rates of normal aging in cerebellum and hippocampus. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 107: 1624–1629, 2010

8. Harmon-Jones, Eddie, A Cognitive Dissonance Theory Perspective on Persuasion, in The Persuasion Handbook: Developments in Theory and Practice, James Price Dillard, Michael
Pfau, eds. 2002. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, p.101.

9. Stanley Colcombe and Arthur F. Kramer Beckman .FITNESS EFFECTS ON THE COGNITIVE FUNCTION OF OLDER ADULTS: A Meta-Analytic Study Institute and Department of Psychology, University of Illinois, Urbana. 2002. <>

10. Erickson KI, Leckie RL, Weinstein AM (September 2014). "Physical
activity, fitness, and gray matter volume"
. Neurobiol. Aging. 35
Suppl 2: S20–528. doi:10.1016/j.neurobiolaging.2014.03.034. PMC 4094356. PMID 24952993. Retrieved 9 December 2014.

11. Valkanova V, Eguia Rodriguez R, Ebmeier KP (June 2014). "Mind over matter—what do we know about neuroplasticity in adults?". Int Psychogeriatr. 26 (6): 891–909. doi:10.1017/S1041610213002482. PMID 24382194.

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