Optimum Brain Health: Does exercise really matter?

Explore the mind-body connection. Discover how exercise and a balanced diet can boost your cognitive abilities and help you achieve optimum brain health.

Exercise is essential for many aspects of cognitive health
Exercise is essential for many aspects of cognitive health

Have you ever considered the profound connection between your body and brain? The intricate relationship between these two integral parts of your existence is truly awe-inspiring. Physical fitness isn’t just about sculpting a well-toned body or chasing the adrenaline high that follows a good workout. There’s much more to it – especially concerning your brain health.

How do physical fitness and cognitive health relate to each other?

When you engage in physical exercise, your brain works overtime, coordinating your movements, keeping you balanced and ensuring that your body responds effectively to the challenges posed by your chosen activity. This intensive work isn’t for nothing; it contributes to maintaining your cognitive health and enhancing brain function.

Here’s how it all fits together:

  • Increased Blood Flow: When you exercise, your heart pumps blood more efficiently, ensuring a generous supply reaches your brain. This increased blood flow carries much-needed oxygen and nutrients, helping to keep your brain healthy and well-nourished.
  • Neurogenesis and Synaptic Plasticity: Regular physical activity stimulates the production of new neurons – a process called neurogenesis. Exercise also enhances synaptic plasticity, which is the ability of synapses (the connections between neurons) to strengthen or weaken over time, affecting learning and memory.
  • Boosting Mood and Reducing Stress: Physical fitness routines can improve mental health by helping regulate mood and reduce stress levels. This is mainly due to the release of endorphins, sometimes called ‘feel-good’ hormones, during exercise.

How does regular exercise enhance brain function?

The wonder of physical exercise lies in its capacity to improve several aspects of cognitive function, including memory, attention and decision-making abilities.

Here’s what happens when you regularly engage your body in physical activity:

  • Improved Memory and Learning: Research indicates regular physical activity can boost memory and learning capabilities. The hippocampus, a part of the brain vital for learning and memory, is particularly responsive to physical exercise.
  • Enhanced Attention and Focus: Maintaining a regular workout regimen can help you stay sharp and attentive. Exercise stimulates the release of chemicals in the brain that affect the health of brain cells and the growth of new blood vessels in the brain.
  • Better Decision Making: By enhancing blood flow and stimulating neurogenesis, exercise improves brain function, including decision-making abilities. Better decision-making can translate to improved performance in both your professional and personal life.

What are the physiological changes that exercise brings about in your brain?

The physiological changes in your brain during and after exercise are intriguing and empowering. Here are a few noteworthy transformations:

  • Increased Brain Volume: Regular exercise can lead to an increase in the volume of specific brain regions. This growth is linked to better cognitive function and improved overall brain health.
  • Neurotransmitter Regulation: Exercise helps regulate the production of neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine, which play a critical role in mood regulation, reward processing and stress response.
  • Reduction in Inflammation and Insulin Resistance: Regular physical activity has anti-inflammatory effects and improves insulin sensitivity in the brain, protecting against cognitive decline and brain diseases.

Understanding these physiological changes and the connection between physical fitness and cognitive health is the first step in leveraging exercise to boost your brain health.

If you are new to exercise or have a pre-existing medical condition or are pregnant, always consult a healthcare professional before embarking on a new exercise regimen.

Proper nutrition is crucial for exercise and brain health
Proper nutrition is crucial for exercise and brain health

How does nutrition support physical fitness?

To put it simply, nutrition fuels your body. The food you eat impacts how well your body performs, from your ability to do everyday tasks, to pushing through intense workouts.


Proteins are crucial for muscle repair and growth. Whenever you exercise, your muscle fibres experience microscopic damage. Proteins help rebuild these fibres, making your muscles stronger and more resilient.

Excellent sources of protein include:

  • Lean meats like chicken and turkey.
  • Fish such as salmon and tuna.
  • Eggs.
  • Dairy products like Greek yoghurt and cottage cheese.
  • Plant-based sources such as lentils, chickpeas and tofu.


Carbohydrates are your body’s primary source of energy. They are broken down into glucose, which your muscles and brain use as fuel, especially during high-intensity workouts.

Foods rich in complex carbohydrates, which provide sustained energy, include:

  • Whole grains like quinoa, brown rice, oats and whole-grain bread.
  • Fruits like bananas and apples.
  • Legumes such as chickpeas, lentils and beans.
  • Starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes and squash.


Fats provide a rich source of calories and are key for lower intensity and longer duration activities. Essential fatty acids, like omega-3s, also contribute to brain and heart health and reduce inflammation in the body.

Foods high in healthy fats include:

  • Avocados.
  • Nuts and seeds like almonds, walnuts and chia seeds.
  • Fatty fish such as salmon, sardines and mackerel.
  • Olives and olive oil.

Vitamins and Minerals

Vitamins and minerals, such as iron, calcium and vitamin D, are just as essential as they support various bodily functions like bone health, oxygen transport and immune function.

Proper hydration, too, cannot be overstated. Water helps regulate body temperature and lubricate joints; even minor dehydration can significantly affect your performance.

Good sources of various vitamins and minerals include:

  • Leafy green vegetables like spinach and kale (calcium, iron, vitamin C).
  • Dairy products (calcium, vitamin D).
  • Lean meats (iron, B vitamins).
  • Citrus fruits and berries like strawberries, raspberries and blueberries (vitamin C).
Berries are rich in vitamin C and antioxidants
Berries are rich in vitamin C and antioxidants

What nutrients are essential for maintaining cognitive health?

Just as your body needs fuel for physical activities, your brain needs nutrients for cognitive function. A balanced diet supports physical health and plays a vital role in maintaining your brain’s health and enhancing mental acuity.

Key nutrients for cognitive health include:

  • Omega-3 fatty acids: These fats are essential for brain health. Omega-3 fatty acids are integral to maintaining the fluidity of brain cell membranes, which is crucial for the cells to communicate effectively. When your brain cells communicate well, you will likely experience sharper thinking and better concentration. Foods high in omega-3s, like oily fish, flaxseeds and walnuts, help slow cognitive decline and enhance brain function. 
  • B vitamins: Particularly Vitamin B6, B9 (Folate, Folic Acid) and B12, are known for their role in brain health. They may help slow brain ageing and enhance memory. B vitamins also help reduce levels of homocysteine in the blood, an amino acid that, in high levels, can lead to brain shrinkage and cognitive decline. Foods rich in these vitamins include whole grains (B6), leafy green vegetables (B9) and animal products like eggs, meat and dairy (B12).
  • Antioxidants: Antioxidants combat oxidative stress, a key factor in age-related cognitive decline and brain diseases. By neutralising harmful free radicals, they help maintain the health of brain cells. Vitamin C, Vitamin E and flavonoids found in fruits and vegetables can help protect the brain from damage and improve cognitive function. Foods rich in antioxidants include berries like blueberries and strawberries, nuts like walnuts and pecans and dark chocolate.
  • Iron, zinc, and iodine: These minerals support brain development and function. Minerals like iron, zinc and iodine help produce neurotransmitters, the body’s chemical messengers. This process is essential for sustaining attention and quick thinking. Iron deficiency, for instance, can impair cognitive function. Foods high in these minerals include red meat and poultry (iron, zinc), seafood like oysters and shellfish (iron, zinc, iodine) and lentils and beans (iron, zinc).
  • Fibre: Foods high in fibre, like fruits, vegetables, whole grains and beans and lentils, are associated with better cognitive control in tasks that require the use of memory. Fibre can also indirectly affect brain health by promoting healthy gut microbiota. Emerging research indicates that a healthy gut can contribute to a healthy brain, influencing mood and cognitive function.

In a nutshell, your food can significantly influence your physical and mental performance. Consuming a balanced diet containing various nutrients is an easy and effective way to ensure your body and mind are in great shape. Regular exercise and adequate hydration, paired with optimal nutrition, can help you stay physically fit and mentally sharp.

How does exercise affect the absorption of nutrients?

Regular physical activity can affect how your body absorbs and utilises nutrients. It’s a fascinating process that underlines how interconnected your body systems are. When you exercise, your body’s metabolic rate increases. This means you burn calories at a faster rate, which also increases your need for energy-providing nutrients.

Moreover, studies have shown that physical exercise can influence nutrient absorption and brain health. Regular exercise improves blood circulation, which enhances the delivery of oxygen and nutrients, like glucose and fatty acids, to your brain. These nutrients are vital for maintaining your brain’s structure and function and keeping your mental faculties sharp.

There are two main ways in which exercise can affect nutrient absorption:

  1. Enhanced nutrient uptake: Exercise improves insulin sensitivity, which can enhance the uptake of glucose – the primary energy source for your brain.
  2. Increased nutrient requirement: Regular exercise increases the requirement for certain micronutrients, including B vitamins and antioxidants, which are critical for brain health.

It’s also worth mentioning that the connection between exercise and nutrient absorption is a two-way street. Your nutritional status can influence your exercise performance, and in turn, regular exercise can affect your body’s nutrient needs.

Exercise greatly enhances nutrient absorption
Exercise greatly enhances nutrient absorption

How does exercise enhance the effects of a nutrient-rich diet on cognitive function?

Now, it’s time to uncover how exercise and a nutrient-rich diet can join forces to boost your cognitive abilities. Here are some fascinating synergies that come into play:

  1. Boosting brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF): Exercise stimulates the production of BDNF. This protein promotes the growth and survival of neurons in your brain. A diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids and flavonoids can also increase BDNF levels. Combining exercise with a nutrient-rich diet can boost your BDNF levels!
  2. Promoting neurogenesis: Both regular physical activity and a diet rich in nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants can stimulate the growth of new neurons, a process known as neurogenesis. This growth happens primarily in the hippocampus, a region of the brain associated with learning and memory.
  3. Improving cognitive flexibility: Cognitive flexibility is your brain’s ability to switch between thinking about two or multiple concepts simultaneously. It’s a critical skill for learning and adaptability. Regular physical activity has been shown to improve cognitive flexibility, and research suggests that a diet rich in healthy omega-3 fatty acids and low in saturated fats might enhance these benefits.
  4. Reducing inflammation and oxidative stress: Regular physical activity and a diet rich in anti-inflammatory and antioxidant-rich foods, like berries, leafy greens and nuts, can help reduce inflammation and oxidative stress in the brain, thereby supporting cognitive health.

Combining regular exercise with a nutrient-rich diet can benefit your brain health. It could be a winning combination that enables your brain to perform at its best, improving your focus, memory and overall cognitive function.

What are some practical tips for incorporating exercise and nutrition into my daily routine?

Becoming a healthier version of yourself isn’t something that happens overnight. It’s about making small, manageable changes that will have a long-lasting impact on your wellbeing. Here are some practical tips that you can seamlessly blend into your daily routine:

  • Regular physical activity: Make exercise a priority. This doesn’t mean you have to run a marathon every day. A brisk 30-minute walk, a yoga session or a quick high-intensity interval training (HIIT) session can do wonders for your brain health.
  • Stay hydrated: Aim to drink at least 1.5 to 2 litres of water a day. Water helps to deliver essential nutrients to the brain and aids in the removal of waste products.
  • Eat a balanced diet: Incorporate a variety of brain-boosting foods into your meals. These include foods rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants and B vitamins.
  • Prioritise sleep: A good night’s sleep enhances brain function and supports overall physical health. Aim for 7-9 hours of quality sleep each night.
  • Mindful eating: Pay attention to what you eat. Cherish the food, its taste and texture. Mindful eating has been linked to better food choices and improved mental wellbeing.

How can individuals balance their nutrition to suit exercise routines and support brain health?

Here are some guidelines to balance your nutrition, to ensure you have the right fuel for physical activities and to support your brain health.:

  • Pre-workout nutrition: Aim for a meal or snack rich in carbohydrates to give you the energy you need to exercise. Foods like whole grains, fruits and vegetables are excellent choices.
  • During workout: Staying hydrated during your workout is key. If your workout lasts over an hour, consider a sports drink containing electrolytes.
  • Post-workout nutrition: After exercising, replenish your energy stores with protein for muscle recovery and carbohydrates to refill your energy reserves.
  • Overall nutritional balance: Your diet should be rich in fruits, vegetables, lean proteins and healthy fats. These nutrient-dense foods will fuel your workouts and provide vital support for brain health.
  • Brain-boosting supplements: Consider incorporating brain health supplements into your diet. Omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins and antioxidant supplements can provide added support to your cognitive health.

Everyone is unique, and what works best for one person may not work for another. The goal is to find a balance that works for you. Implement these strategies gradually and adapt them to your personal preferences. You’ll find a routine that’s beneficial for your brain health and enjoyable and sustainable.

What does current research say about the connection between exercise and brain health?

Looking at the pool of current research, it’s becoming increasingly clear there’s a compelling link between exercise, nutrition and mental acuity. Scientists across the globe are focusing on exploring this triumvirate of health to provide us with the most accurate insights.

One research paper entitled ‘Beneficial effects of physical exercise on neuroplasticity and cognition[1]‘ concluded: ‘The results suggest that physical exercise may trigger processes facilitating neuroplasticity and, thereby, enhances an individual’s capacity to respond to new demands with behavioural adaptations.

Meanwhile, another study entitled ‘Spatial memory is improved by aerobic and resistance exercise through divergent molecular mechanisms[2]‘ concluded that: ‘A growing body of scientific evidence indicates that exercise has a positive impact on human health, including neurological health. Aerobic exercise, which is supposed to enhance cardiovascular functions and metabolism, also induces neurotrophic factors that affect hippocampal neurons, thereby improving spatial learning and memory.


  1. Hötting K, Röder B. Beneficial effects of physical exercise on neuroplasticity and cognition. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2013 Nov;37(9 Pt B):2243-57. doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2013.04.005. Epub 2013 Apr 25. PMID: 23623982.
  2. Cassilhas RC, Lee KS, Fernandes J, Oliveira MG, Tufik S, Meeusen R, de Mello MT. Spatial memory is improved by aerobic and resistance exercise through divergent molecular mechanisms. Neuroscience. 2012 Jan 27;202:309-17. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroscience.2011.11.029. Epub 2011 Dec 2. PMID: 22155655.

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