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How Exercise Helps You Learn

Dan's Plan - Exercise - Blog

In this series of articles, we look at the effects of exercise on the brain, including how it helps maximize our capacity to learn. In the previous post on this subject, we saw how moderate-intensity physical activity enhances thinking ability by temporarily increasing brain blood flow. This effect works in the short term, as long as we continue to maintain the right exercise-intensity level: Not intense enough and we don’t augment blood flow to the brain; too intense and blood flow returns to baseline flow levels all while the demands of exercise require us to increasingly focus on the exercise itself (not the problem you’re trying to solve in your head).

So, an interesting question to ask is this: can exercise induce lasting improvements in cognitive ability? Current research suggests that the answer to this question is yes. It promotes an increase in the levels of certain substances that enhance the brain’s capacity to acquire and retain new information.

For most of the twentieth century, scientists believed that we stopped producing new neurons soon after birth. Studies beginning in the 1980s, however, revealed that brain structureHippocampus Seahorse remains dynamic throughout life. One area of our central nervous system that has a remarkable capacity for new growth and reorganization of neuron connections is the hippocampus. This seahorse-shaped brain area plays a central role in learning and memory, among other functions, and it is now clear that parts of it continue to develop even in adulthood.


How Does the Brain Form Memories?

To acquire new knowledge, neurons must form new connections – known as synapses. Our memories, if you can believe it, are stored across these synapses. Allow me to explain further.

When you learn something, a pattern of neuron firing takes place that represents the new concept. When that particular brain activity pattern is fired with enough intensity and with adequate regularity, a memory is formed because the physical structure of the connections are changed. A stored memory means we can reproduce the information in our heads either as a thought or even a subconscious skill or reaction. To retain what’s been learned, these connections must be maintained, which usually only happens with repeated use. This is why it’s really hard to remember the name of the person who you knew perfectly well in high school but haven’t seen in 20 years. Use it or lose it. So, learning requires that the actual structure of neurons physically change and in order to do this, the right chemicals are needed. Thus, acquiring and maintaining memories demands the right supply of chemicals and stimulation.

Acquiring and maintaining memories demands the right supply of chemicals and stimulation Click To Tweet


Stimulation for Learning

Brain StimulationThis ability to change neuron connections is favored when we are placed in an environment with lots of stimulation, and one that is supportive of the act of learning itself. Animals living in environments that offer opportunities for a variety of stimulation – social, cognitive, sensory, and motor – show enhanced formation of new neurons compared to animals living in standard
laboratory cages. In particular, exercise stands out as a powerful stimulus to enhance learning largely because it triggers the production of substances that stimulate neuron interconnectivity.  How does this happen?


Exercise and BDNF

When we exercise, we activate forebrain neurons that use the neurotransmitters acetylcholine and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). These signals tell the memory-forming hippocampus to produce a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which then helps neurons grow and connect.

In response to exercise, an increase in BDNF is seen within days and results in a multi-fold surge in the production and survival of new neurons. The increase peaks after just 3 days of running and remains elevated for weeks when regular physical activity is sustained. So what happens if you use drugs that prevent BDNF from binding to its receptors? You prevent the beneficial effects of exercise on learning, which points towards the importance of this growth factor as a key mediator of the effect.

This is likely one of the reasons your cognition will benefit more with regular physical activity mixed into your weekly pattern of living versus an alternative of making only large, occasional efforts (e.g., several hour bike rides a few times a month). Yes, keep those weekly Exercise Scores in the Dan’s Plan exercise tracker above 100%!


Exercise Action on Neurotransmitter Systems

As mentioned above, physical activity stimulates the release of certain neurotransmitters, which then stimulate the production of BDNF. But this increase in neurotransmitter pools, itself, can directly enhance learning, memory, and thinking ability. For example, exercise at >80% maximal heart rate increases the synthesis of glutamate and GABA in the anterior cingulate cortex. Let me tell you why you want this. Strong activity in this brain region helps you starting working on a project by selecting specific tasks in favor of other things on your plate (choice selection), helps you maintain focused on a project (distraction filtering), helps you regulate emotions while you work, and helps you hold pieces of information in your mind as you try to solve problems (i.e., all processes of executive functioning and working memory).

Essentially, by increasing the pools of these neurotransmitters, regular exercise makes it easier for neurons to function optimally. Indeed, in response to regular exercise, neurons in the prefrontal cortex are not only more apt to interconnect, are stronger and more amenable to growth, but they are also more resistant to damage, particularly in older adults.


Stress Resistance

Exercise may also aid memory indirectly by reducing chronic stress and increasing stress resistance. Prolonged exposure to heightened stress elevates glucocorticoid hormones. Elevated levels of stress hormones interfere with the ability to write new memories. Because exercise is a stress-relieving activity (as long as we don’t overdo it), glucocorticoid production is reduced. This helps us deal with stressful conditions better, limiting its physiological consequences, and preventing stressful situations from interfering with our ability to learn well and think clearly. Exercise doesn’t just make our muscles stronger, it makes our brain stronger too, and helps us maintain good mental performance in the face of real life.



It has been established that exercise has numerous unique physiological effects that are likely to make the brain more adept at restructuring itself to learn and retain new information. I find thisnoun_21475 idea particularly appealing – it’s like upgrading your brain to make the process of learning faster, easier, and more durable.

In the last article I wrote on physical activity and cognition, I discussed how exercise at an intensity of 60% max effort helps us think well now. Here, I discuss how higher intensity exercise promotes an environment that keeps neurons connecting and augments neurotransmitter systems that help us stay sharp. This is just one more reason we promote a mixed intensity (ie., low to high-intensity physical efforts) movement practice as a part of our Enduring Mover concept upon which much of our guidance and even our tracking tools are based.

In subsequent articles, we will be looking at other ways that exercise can help achieve this goal. And later, we will look at the practical evidence for its effects in human cognition.


Colcombe SJ, Erickson KI, Scalf PE, Kim JS, et al. Aerobic exercise training increases brain volume in aging humans. 2006. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci 61(11):1166-1170.

Cotman CW, Berchtold NC. Exercise: a behavioral intervention to enhance brain health and lasticity. 2002. Trends Neurosci 25(9):464-472.

Cotman CW, Berchtold NC, Christie L. Exercise builds brain health: key roles of growth factor cascades and inflammation. 2007. Trends Neurosci 30(9):464-472.

Kuhlmann S, Piel M, Wolf OT. Impaired memory retrieval after psychosocial stress in healthy young men. 2005. J Neurosci 25(11):2977–2982.

Leuner B, Gould E. Structural Plasticity and Hippocampal Function. 2010. Annu Rev Psychol 61:111-C3.

Maddock RJ, Casazza GA, Fernandez DH, Maddock MI. Acute Modulation of Cortical Glutamate and GABA Content by Physical Activity. 2016. J Neurosci 36(8):2449-2457.

Vaynman S, Ying Z, Gomez-Pinilla F. Hippocampal BDNF mediates the efficacy of exercise on synaptic plasticity and cognition. 2004. Eur. J. Neurosci 20(10):2580–2590.

  • Anastasia Chouryguin

    Thank you! Looking forward to the next 🙂

  • Anastasia Chouryguin

    Would anyone else appreciate a bit more of the physiology and biochemistry involved in this? We are already looking at mechanism.

    • danpardi

      Hi @Anastasia Chouryguin:disqus, thanks for the note. As I mentioned in the comments of the last article, it’s a balancing act determining the amount of detail to include. Generally, because we have a mixed audience, I like to use the article to communicate the big concepts, primarily. However, I’m happy to add details to specific questions in the comments below. Don’t get me wrong, I like the details too, but I don’t want to turn off the significant fraction of the audience by going too deep, making the main concepts harder to grasp.

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  • steven

    I wish someone would start doing more research on this idea of intermittent bursts of exercise throughout the day. Would be cool to see 24hour body temp fluctuations from bursts vs block–esp. with recent research showing attenuation of depression from hyperthermia treatment– as well as how the overall effect on our stress physiology differs, seeing as how forced blocks have more negative stress induced effects on rats compared to greater stress relief through spontaneous bursts.

    • danpardi

      Hi @disqus_WEvXijxICH:disqus, first off, I always appreciate your incisive comments – thank you. I too would like to see this research. I can tell you, however, that many studies that look at daily step count have some comment in the discussion describing how extra benefits were found if those 10,000 steps didn’t happen in one block but rather happened across the day, as though some of the benefit is from the workload and some of the benefit is from breaking up sedentary periods. I’ll tell you this, doing InTUNE training, which is the training system I developed, which helps you spread activity across the day, is world changing for me. I can say with reasonable confidence that when I stick to doing this training – the ease of which is one of it’s great benefits – it’s probably the best I feel physically and mentally. I’ve just totally revamped InTUNE Training and will be releasing it when I launch humanOS.me in a few weeks. I’m pretty excited about it, honestly.

      • steven

        Can’t wait for the unveiling!

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