DMV Fitness logo

Does Exercise Build a Better Brain?

It’s no secret that exercising regularly, and consistently has fantastic benefits for your physical health. It also keeps us looking good. What about your brain health? Does exercise build a better brain?

The answer is yes! There’s growing scientific evidence showing that exercise is just as important, if not more so, to give us a bigger, better, brighter brain.

In 2011, The Mayo Clinic went through 1,600 papers on exercise and there was agreement that moderate exercise had a definite positive effect on memory, learning, performance, and motivation.

A 2014 study Stanford University found that something as simple as walking, improved creative output by as much as 60%. The effect continued for the next 10 minutes stopping. Off the back of this many high-tech companies have adopted walking meetings. 

Dr. John J. Ratey, MD a Psychiatrist, and Clinical Assistant Professor at Harvard Medical School studies the brain and has taken an interest in the brain/fitness connection.  

His interest originated from a public High School in Naperville, Illinois, and the larger Naperville district.  He observed that it was usually the ‘jocks’, who really didn’t need to work out, who were mainly engaging in PE class.  They responded by changing up their PE programme to focus on ALL students participating. Heart rate monitors played a part in their grades, and it was often found that the kids who didn’t appear all that athletic, were actually working harder in PE than some of the school athletes, and everybody was getting fit. 

With the US national average of obesity being 33%, they eventually got down to 3%. The kids weren’t just improving physical fitness, they were testing better. The school petitioned to enter as their own country for the TIMMS test, a worldwide standardise test on Math and Science ability, where the US usually lands in the high teens or 20s.  Naperville School district 203, labeling it as a country, came in #1 in the world in Science and #6 in Math—and a key factor was their physical education programme that over 20 years had evolved so that every student was spending 40 minutes a day focusing on their fitness in his or her daily physical education class. 

This led John to Naperville, and e to write, Spark, The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain


Scientist, Dr. Carl Cotman began to study the exercise/brain relationship in a laboratory using mice. He tested the intellectual capabilities of a group of mice then trained them to run on a running wheel, finding that they did this willingly and ran up to 4 kilometers a night on their own. 

After a week or so, he retested them and found that they had a big improvement on his tests. He looked at their brains to see why.  Cotman found that the cerebral cortex of their brains were bigger and thicker. This was an indication that their brain cells had grown to become more connected over this relatively short period of time.  He also weighed their brains, and they were not only heavier, but He also discovered that a key area of the brain, the hippocampus, was larger.  The key factor that led to this growth was identified as Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor, which is a mouthful. Basically, what it boils down to is that exercise worked like fertilizer for the brain tissue.

This sparked neuroscience to discover the mystery of the brain and physical exercise.  Some discoveries include:

  • That exercise turned on the attention system and sparked our frontal cortex that activates the Executive Function Network, (basically the Boss of the brain), that helps to optimise thinking and learning.
  • That exercise promoted the growth of our 100 billion brain cells, and sped up creation of brand new brain cells.
  • Exercise is a good activity to prevent cognitive decline for sufferers of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.

I think that we often forget that our entire bodies are connected and that all external stimulation, whether it’s reading, eating, or exercise, helps shape us. So what should we do?

It’s perfectly clear that movement of any kind for about 20-30 minutes or so on a daily basis, is the best way to make us smarter, and perform better in our daily life. Even something as routine as going for a short walk. Something is better than nothing, but I would try different activities and see what you enjoy the most.

If you struggle with consistency and need someone to keep you accountable, then that’s where professional coaching comes in. We can help with that.

Until next time, “Strength for Life”



Davie McConnachie

Davie McConnachie is Scotland’s leading health and wellness coach, multi-award-winning gym owner, motivational speaker and the founder of DMC Fitness, a fitness education facility known as the premier choice for 1-2-1 personal training. He has inspired thousands of people to fall in love with fitness – his true purpose and mission in life.

Diving into the world of fitness and wellness has helped Davie to deal with his own trauma and inner demons. He, overcame many dark times using his own unique methods to continue his cycle of healing.