The Benefits of Exercise on the Developing Brain

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  • 1:15 Increased Blood Flow
  • 1:42 Collaboration
  • 2:20 Cerebellum
  • 3:34 Memory
  • 4:32 Executive Function
  • 5:52 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Devin Kowalczyk

Devin has taught psychology and has a master's degree in clinical forensic psychology. He is working on his PhD.

The brain continues to change as you age and develop. This lesson examines the interaction of exercise with the brain, and subsequent changes to cognition.


I don't know where you are right now, but I live in a society and culture where exercise falls into two categories: crazy 'exercise freaks,' who work out twice a day for hours, and those who don't exercise at all. And unfortunately, these are two extremes on the edges of where we should all be.

Like the muscles, heart, and vascular system, the brain also benefits from exercise. Let's look at exactly how the brain benefits from exercise. In addition, we will take a brief look at how a better brain improves your cognition. But first, we need to make sure we are all talking about the same type of exercise. In this lesson, when we talk about exercise we are talking about aerobic exercise, which is exercise dealing with movement of the muscle groups.

It is good to remember that many of the things we will cover today do not immediately increase following physical activity. In fact, many of them will suffer right after exercise, due to the body repairing itself and trying to cope with the demands placed on the body. Many of the benefits that accrue are an 'over time' sort of thing.

Increased Blood Flow

Exercise cleans out the circulatory system and makes the heart stronger. Everything sort of just runs smoother in the body. This, in turn, leads to better oxygenation and reduced likelihood of plaque and cholesterol building up to unhealthy levels.

Your brain is somewhere between two and three percent of your body mass. It is rather small when you compare it to the rest of your body. However, it's an energy hog. Your brain consumes somewhere between 25% and 33% of your calories and oxygen. It just sucks it all down and spits out such simple things as thinking, memory, and computational power that have only recently been exceeded by giant supercomputers. Increased blood flow means a faster and more efficient delivery of nutrients, energy, and oxygen that your brain needs. If you only give your brain half the energy it needs, well that is sort of like giving your computer half the power it needs. It just won't work as well.


Beyond just blood flow and a healthier body, the brain can actually change when a person exercises. If you look at a brain, there is this weird, gigantic lump in the back called the cerebellum. The cerebellum is a brain structure important for motor control, coordination, and timing.

No human is born knowing how to run, jump, or do the Charleston. You have to learn how. Part of the muscle memory is stored in the brain itself, in a place called the primary motor cortex. That is where the decisions about types of movement are made. But more important when it comes to exercise and movement is the cerebellum. The ability to run in a rhythmic way, to move in a coordinated fashion, and to mesh all of the movement activities together is part of the cerebellum.

Exercise can increase the size and the development of the cerebellum by increasing the number of connections each neuron makes. The ability to use timing and coordinated movements makes a brain better at processing other similar functions. This is why many sports players take up dance - the skills are transferable.


Similar to the cerebellum, the functionality of memory is improved by exercise. Your thinking and memories are made up of neurons making connections. When there is an increase in the blood flow in the capillaries of the brain, this means that there is more energy, nutrients, and oxygen for the neurons to develop and grow. Sort of like plant food, if you have more, then the plants will grow bigger and stronger.

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