If you’re a personal trainer or considering a career in the field, it’s important to understand how the brain works so that you can help educate your clients about why movement is important for both our mental and physical health.

It is well known that exercise can benefit many aspects of our physical health and our cognitive health. There is strong evidence that regular exercise improves brain function and protects against age-related deterioration.

The effects of exercise include improvements in overall brain health, learning, memory, and mood. Aerobic exercise in particular has been the focus of studies on maintaining brain health.

A person jogging on a road next to a large body of water.

How does exercise improve brain health?

The main mechanism described in most research that involves exercise looks at brain growth factors – also referred to as BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor). BDNF plays a critical role in neuron activity and growth.

More neuron growth = better brain function.

Specifically, increased brain growth factors can improve brain health through cognition, neurogenesis (formation of new neurons), and brain vascular formation and blood flow.

There are two main areas of the brain that have been studied in regard to exercise – the hippocampus & the prefrontal cortex:

  • The hippocampus is an area of the brain that is important for learning and memory
  • The prefrontal cortex is critical for the ability to shift and focus your attention including decision making, personality, and the executive functions of your brain – like the ordering to your day or ability to do things in order in a strategic way

How flexible is our brain? 

We’ve all heard that little kids’ brains are like sponges. While this may be true, it’s a myth that our brains are incapable of generating new neurons after a certain age. In fact, we continuously make new nerve cells and make new connections.

Exercise actually aids in the formation of new neurons in the brain which relates to the concept of neuroplasticity.

Neuroplasticity is our brain’s ability to reformat itself. Our brains can adapt in both structure and function throughout life based on events and input. The most recent research has shown that our brains are more capable of neuroplasticity than previously thought.

Personal training and memory 

We form new memories every day. The ability to form and retain new long-term memories of facts and events is dependent on the hippocampus. Unfortunately, as we age, our hippocampuses shrink.

What if as a personal trainer, you could help people before they get to a neurodegenerative state like dementia, in older age?

A 2013 study showed that aerobic training over time can increase the ability to recall information by the increase in the size of the anterior hippocampus.

Other studies have also shown that regular exercise can reduce the risk of degenerative brain diseases, specifically a 30% decrease for developing dementia and 45% decrease for developing Alzheihmers.

Back to the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex – these two areas are directly affected by benefits of exercise and are actually the most susceptible to aging and neurodegenerative diseases.

Long term and short-term exercise effects on memory 

If you’re studying to pass a fitness certification exam like the ACSM Certified Personal Trainer, you’re actively relying on your hippocampal-dependent memory to pull all of that information together to remember those key concepts.

We can break down the effects that physical activity can have on the brain into two areas:

  • Immediate
  • Long-term

Immediate Effects

You know that immediate mood boost you get after a good workout? Exercise instantly increases these ‘good mood’ neurotransmitters:

  • Dopamine
  • Serotonin
  • Noradrenaline

The ability to respond to cognitive tasks gets faster by improving reaction time, since the brain controls our movement, the more you move your brain, the better your motor functions become.

Regular exercise can help reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer's by 45%.

All of this to say, even after a single workout, your brain is flooded with these various neurochemicals; improving your mood and improving your focus and attention which lasts for about two to four hours following exercise.

This heightened state may be a great time to break out your books or study materials and start studying to take advantage of the focus and attention-improving neurotransmitters.

Long-term effects 

Exercise that is done to improve your cardiorespiratory fitness is the kind of exercise that has the potential to change your brain’s anatomy, physiology, and function. We talked about the hippocampus which is critical for long-term memory, and the various growth factors exercise releases during every workout.

This increases the baseline growth factors in the brain. In the long-term, this is what eventually stimulates the birth of brand new hippocampal cells. We want these new cells because they better incorporate into memory circuits, they are more active, and they help improve your memory when compared to old hippocampal cells.

Regular, consistent workouts can help you grow those desired cells and help improve memory.

What exercise is best for brain health?

If you’re wondering what exercise is best for brain health…well, we don’t have that answer quite yet. There are many parts of the brain impacted by exercise, but most studies have focused on aerobic training and high-intensity interval training.

Don’t rule out the benefits of walking as a beneficial form of physical activity. Walking is often underrated but it’s a simple, free, and incredibly effective way to get your exercise.

I would say that the exercise prescription is going to be determined by individualized factors like age, current activity level, and the ability to stick with whatever routine you choose.

When working with clients, prioritize the activity they can integrate as part of their everyday life, completing this exercise frequently and consistently.

Most of us don’t think about neurology when we’re about to hit up the gym, but maybe now you can communicate the benefits exercise has on our physical health, mental health, and overall well-being when working with clients.