Fitness Tips

New Research Explains Why Exercise Can Boost Your Brain Function, Memory, and Mood

Photo: Getty Images/ jacoblund
We know working out is good for your body. But there’s a new study that explains why exercise is so good for your brain in particular. The keys to it all are molecules called myokines, which “are important messengers [that] stimulate the function and coordinate homeostasis with many other organs, including the liver, kidney and, of course, the brain,” says the paper’s co-author Mychael Vinicius Lourenco, PhD, an assistant professor of neuroscience at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. In the paper, Lourenco and his co-authors reviewed recent research and were able to establish that the muscles and the brain communicate with each other in some pretty exciting ways.

When you run, walk, lift weights, do Pilates, or engage in any sort of exercise, your muscles contract. The action of contraction prompts your muscles to release myokines. Those molecules then go all over your body telling your organs to essentially get in gear and do their job. Some types of myokines are able to cross the blood-brain barrier and even go directly to your brain. What do these molecules do once they’re in your noodle?

“Several myokines—irisin, hydroxybutyrate, etc.—have been shown to stimulate neuronal function and facilitate synapses, which are the way neurons communicate with each other,” Lourenco says. Specifically, they travel to regions in the brain responsible for regulating your mood and facilitating learning and memory. They then do a whole lot of brain-boosting activity, including helping your brain form new neurons, make new (and strengthen existing) connections, and increase your executive function, memory, and mood. All pretty dang important stuff that contributes to making you the thinking machine that you are.

Lourenco says that all exercise that involves muscle contraction should have these effects, and that there’s no right or wrong way to boost your brain power through your body. “Any type of regular exercise is good, as long as it is regular and is recommended for a given person,” Lourenco says.

As fitness author Casey Johnston pointed out on Twitter when she heard the research findings, there is often a perceived gulf between people who work out their brains and those who work out their bodies. But this research and our deeper understanding of myokines shows that both are one in the same. It’s the definition of a win-win.

This strength and mobility workout is the perfect way to activate your muscles (and myokines): 

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