Good Cardiovascular Health is Good Brain Health

A jog or morning run is good for your muscles and waistline, but it turns out aerobic exercise is also good for the brain. In recent years there’s been a dramatic increase in scientific evidence pointing to the powerful connection between physical activity and long-term brain health. Just 30 minutes of aerobic exercise three to five times a week has significant brain benefits.


It is never too early or too late to get active! Our cognitive abilities normally decline with advancing age. Though research studies continually prove that more physical activity is associated with better cognitive functioning. One study showed adults over the age of 55, who had lower levels of cardiovascular fitness, had worse global cognitive function six years later compared to individuals who had higher cardio activity levels (Barnes, et al., 2003).


Once you realize, the brain comprises only 2% of the body’s weight but uses 15 – 20% of the body’s blood supply and oxygen, it makes sense to involve yourself in activities that keep the blood pumping and oxygen flowing to the brain. The gist of it is… exercise generates nitric oxide, a gas that enlarges the blood vessels’ passageways, allowing more blood and oxygen to be pumped to the brain. And contracting muscles release a fibroblast growth culture (FGF-2), which activates a molecular chain reaction that manufactures the endothelial cells that line blood vessels and are vastly important in building new blood vessels. The more blood vessels in our brains, the more we protect our brains from stroke damage by “creating redundant circulation routes that protect against further blockages.” You can read more about this in John Ratey’s book, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain.


Runners know that running is a feel-good experience. This is because exercise affects one’s mood through the release of endorphins and the production of a protein called Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF). Endorphins are stress hormones that help calm the brain and alleviate pain during exercise. That feeling of elation runners get comes from the release of endorphins but the boost that comes from BDNF is literally mind-altering. BDNF is a nerve cell protein, which helps support the survival of existing neurons by keeping them functioning and growing. And BDNF even spurs the growth of new neuron cells in the brain. Decreased levels of BDNF have been observed in depressed people and may contribute to the atrophy of two important areas in the brain: the hippocampus (responsible for short-term memory) and the prefrontal cortex (responsible for higher level thinking and planning).

So a regular jog around the block may contribute to the alleviation of depression, protect against nerve cell death, stimulate new brain cell growth and strengthen the connection between brain cells. Not so bad for 30 minutes of exertion!

Barnes , D.E., Yaffe, K., Satariano, W.A., Tager, I.B. (2003). “A Longitudinal Study of Cardiorespiratory Fitness and Cognitive Function in Healthy Older Adults.” Journal of the American Geriatrics Society 51(4): 459-65.