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The Neuroscience of Exercise

Updated: Mar 28, 2023

Neurogenesis. Acrylic on paper. Dec 2020, Discovery Bay HKG.

When we think about the benefits of exercise, we believe that it’s primarily about losing weight and looking good. And most of us have also learned that it can be good for our heart and lungs. But what if you aren’t wanting to lose weight, nor particularly concerned about your heart, lungs or looks?

What exactly are the benefits of movement, and why is it the core pillar to the Daily Essentials Matrix™ ? Turns out that when it comes to lifestyle and brain health, exercise is like the Ironman of the Marvel Avengers. The other superheroes are all important, fun and interesting in their own way, but Ironman is the star of the show.


Whether you are walking, doing yoga or lifting weights, exercise is fundamentally about exerting your muscles. And it turns out that exercising stimulates our muscles to release neurochemicals (aka neurotransmitters. hormones) that benefit the brain.

Exercise stimulates our muscles to release neurochemicals

These chemicals include feel-good transmitters like endorphins, and hormones like dopamine that reward us. Most importantly, our muscles are also capable of producing brain derived neurotrophic factor or BDNF. BDNF is known for its impact on helping neurons to grow and thrive, especially in the hippocampus, thereby actually building neural reserve and warding off dementia.

Exercise also protects against depression and anxiety, which can be risk factors for future dementia. Such protective benefits are likely due to release of serotonin and endocannabinoids after movement. Exercise has been demonstrated to be at least as effective as prescription antidepressant medication.

Photo by Dương Nhân:

Exercise also improves brain health through its impact on sleep. When we exercise, we are reinforcing two major natural mechanisms governing our sleep. i.e. natural circadian rhythms and sleep drive. Sleep is critical for activation of the glymphatic or “drainage and sanitation” system in the brain, which clears out metabolic waste products and debris (e.g. amyloid beta).

How much?

Even with the best of intentions, I have struggled to find time for exercise. Which feels lame to say, even as I’m writing this. Because the truth is that I am sabotaging myself through perfectionism.

I’m only hurting myself when I’m locked in that perfectionistic vision

When I think of my workouts when I was at my peak fitness, it was when I was doing 2-3 hour “bricks” while training for triathlons or marathons. And perhaps a really intense 90-minute session of cardio plus weights at the gym. Remembering these “perfect” workouts, is actually me allowing the great to be the enemy of the good.

It’s like when I never allowed myself to do art, unless each piece was a masterpiece. What I’ve learned is that I’m hurting no one but myself when I am locked in that perfectionistic vision that is all about my own ego. In fact, it’s a lose-lose proposition because I get to fail by not even trying, and I get to fail when I try, but am not able to meet my own expectations for myself.

Photo by Richard Verbeek:

What’s great to know is that research supports the benefits of even 10-minute “move breaks.” Just a short walk around the building or some stretching stimulates the production of adrenaline, which can sharpen our focus. I can get so trapped in front of my screen when I’m working, especially when I’m on a deadline and it feels like I can’t take the time for a break. But actually the science shows that we are more productive and creative when we break up periods of being sedentary,

What kind?

Exercising for longer or with more intensity can bring additional benefits, but so can adding social connection, like walking with a friend or joining an exercise class. Working out in nature also boosts dopamine, the reward chemical that makes us want to come back to do it again.

We have to tailor exercise to what we’ll actually consistently do

It may seem contradictory to say that the goal with exercise is more about sustainability than consistency, but what I mean is that we have to tailor exercise to what we’ll actually consistently DO.

What do we find fun and rewarding, and what will keep us coming back to do it again? Systematic reviews of the literature have shown benefits from any kind of exercise, whether it’s aerobic, resistance, or mindfulness based movement, like taichi.

DrEm Personal Archive, 2021 Hong Kong Harbour

In other words, it’s all about our personal preferences. Do we like the feeling of stretching, or do we prefer the intensity of challenge? As much as we may enjoy mastery and routine, they must be balanced with the need for building neuroplasticity by challenging our brains to learn new things.

Just doing it

Another trap that I’ve gotten myself into when it comes to exercise, is the belief that I’m not doing it right if I can’t do it on my own. Like I’m lacking in discipline, willpower, or general strength of character when I’m not motivating myself like a drill sergeant every day.

Being physically inactive can completely cancel out any genetic advantage

We know from the science that people need support. Even when we have the knowledge, and know what we need to do, we need help actually doing it. That support can look like a friend or instructor - virtual or live, paid or free on the internet. It could also be a group class or community of others engaged in the same activity. Humans are social animals, and it’s much smarter to make use of this as a strength, rather than judging ourselves for not being strong enough to be “a lone wolf.”

There are some personal risk factors for dementia that we can not change, like what diseases run in the family or what genes we got. But we have strong evidence that lifestyle (nurture) can trump genetics (nature), primarily through epigenetics.

I’ve learned that having an ApoE4 gene puts me at higher risk for getting Alzheimer’s, and about quarter of all humans share this risk factor with me. But research shows that being physically inactive can completely cancel out any genetic advantage in the other 75%. We have so much more control over our brain health than we believe, and much of that comes from mindset.

As a family caregiver myself, I find it helpful to channel my energy into sharing my journey and what I am learning about engaging in healthy lifestyle behaviors to prevent dementia. And what I’m finding is that it’s never too late to take action on getting ourselves to being healthy of mind and body at our 100th birthday parties!


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