‘Exercise is the single best thing you can do for your brain in terms of mood, memory and learning’
– John Joseph Ratey, M.D. Clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard

Are you losing focus and feeling like you have fuzzy brain during the day? Do you start work tasks just to get distracted minutes later? Work and non-work demands can seem overwhelming—we are continually bombarded with invasive thoughts like, “What time do I need to pick up the kids? Has the dog been walked? Have I completed the multiple things that needed completing on my never-ending to-do list?” That’s before we have even begun to consider all the work-related tasks with strict deadlines that we are rushing to meet.

Amidst all that, when do we get time to exercise? Yet, the brain benefits of exercise can not only improve our memories and lengthen our attention span, it has also been shown to boost decision-making skills and improve that multi-tasking and planning we’re constantly doing.

What are the brain benefits of exercise?

Wendy Suzuki, one of the leading researchers investigating the benefits of exercise on the brain, describes, in a 10-minute TED talk, how signing up to weekly gym classes changed her life forever. After becoming increasingly frustrated with her weight, she decided that she would make long-lasting changes to her exercise habits. A few weeks into changing these habits, she noticed that, all of a sudden, her focus at work was dramatically improved. It was taking her less time to complete tasks and she was increasingly more focused on the task at hand. She also noticed an improvement in her memory. Not only did she recognise these changes within herself, but most important of all, she felt great.

Wendy wondered if it could be that the weekly group gym classes she had signed up to had influenced her focus and her overall wellbeing.  She had previously devoted her life to memory research and, in a dramatic change, decided to instead explore what really happens to the brain when we exercise. After extensive testing, she found that those who engage in these fitness habits have better attention and show better memory recollection than when they were less active. Exercise can even increase the size of your hippocampus and prefrontal cortex, something that is directly linked to being a protective factor against neurological disorders. In regards to the prefrontal cortex, exercise has been shown by research to enhance prefrontal cortex-dependent cognition, and effects can last for up to two hours afterwards. 

Research also shows that you don’t need to increase your amount of fitness dramatically. Even one session of aerobic fitness can have an impact on your focus and your attention. In an extensive review of the literature that investigates cognitive and behavioural consequences of acute exercise, Basso and Suzuki (2017) documented the vast range of neurophysiological and neurochemical changes that occur in a single session of fitness. They show that the most consistent cognitive/behavioural effects of one exercise session are enhanced executive functions, mood states and decreased stress. This review also proposes that, based on the current research, one of the key effects seen after a single bout of exercise is the change in neurochemical levels such as neurotransmitters, growth factors, metabolites and neuromodulators.   

Not only does adding exercise habits into our daily lives make a difference to our overall physical health and our brain, it also promotes social interaction. Often, our time in the day is so crammed up that, especially if you have an isolated office job or are finding yourself working remotely, you can go hours without spending time with others. Many argue that being social and spending time with others is one of the major boosts for happiness. The social aspects of engaging in activities with colleagues, loved ones or friends are enough to impact on your life satisfaction in a positive way.

But it doesn’t stop there. Our exercise habits have also been demonstrated to affect our sense of purpose in life and that, in turn, may change how much we exercise. Dr Yemiscigil, a research fellow at the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard University and Dr Ivo Vlaev , a professor at the University of Warwick in England, conducted a study investigating levels of physical activity in 18,000 men and women (middle-aged and older) and found that those who initially engaged in active lifestyles also reported an increasing sense of purpose in life over time. Additionally, those who had a stronger sense of purpose from the onset of the study, reported taking part in the most physical activity later. Starting up a habit such as going for a brisk walk, running, a bike ride or attending cardio-related fitness classes with a friend could be the missing ingredients for better attentiveness, memory, long-lasting health and positive mood.

Last but not least, how is exercise related to sleep? 

You guessed it. Exercise can also improve our sleep efficiency. People we work with ask, “How can I get more sleep when my brain is thinking about all the stresses of day-to-day life?” Perhaps one of the most important things that you can do is change your daily habits to include more exercise. A systematic review of research on exercise interventions showed that, with middle-aged and older adults, in particular, exercise increased sleep efficiency and how long participants slept, despite varying types or levels of intensity of the activity engaged in. 

What can you do to get moving? 

So, it’s clear then… getting more active has long-lasting beneficial consequences for our wellbeing. Not only does it make us physically stronger, it also promotes our self-purpose, increases feelings of euphoria through social interaction, helps us sleep and aids our memory/attention at work. 

Yet, sticking to a new behaviour is difficult if you are trying to break old habits and struggling to find enough hours in the day. Some helpful tips to get you going could be:

  • Arrange to meet up with a friend to join a group fitness class. Group fitness is a good way of building new habits as you can do it socially and hold each other accountable for your attendance. 
  • When you feel like you want to skip your daily exercise think to yourself, “Even if I just get my heart-rate pumping for 10 minutes, it’s better than skipping the activity altogether.” Sometimes a new behaviour or habit like exercise can feel overwhelming, but even if you do a little bit each day, you will feel the benefits more than doing nothing at all.
  • Set realistic targets or goals – planning to go running every day when you’re really out of shape might not be the best idea; instead, plan out a steady build-up of activity that you can also realistically manage in your schedule.
  • Encouraging yourself and celebrating small wins works better than criticising or berating yourself for not getting off the couch. 
  • Remember, it’s not all about gym memberships and expensive gear – a walk, some gardening, stretching at home, whatever – if you enjoy the activity and it can fit your lifestyle and your budget, you’re more likely to make it a habit.