Exercise Protects the Brain and the Body

Exercise Protects the Brain and the Body

by Tonya Juge, PT, MSPT, CFMT


Most people like the idea of keeping their brains agile and young as they age. You may already know that mental stimulation, like crossword puzzles and reading, has been shown to maintain the brain. Did you know that exercise helps the brain stay sharp as well?

Neuro Plasticity describes the ability of the brain to remodel itself. (1) When the brain remodels, it actually sprouts nerve cells and grows dendrites, or wiring, that resembles branches on a tree. These branches create new pathways for function (2).

When the brain creates these new highways or routes, we gain the capacity to adapt to changing conditions, perform skills and learn facts. (1) Exercise is one important activity that benefits brain function and accesses neuroplasticity. A baby’s brain has a vast amount of neurons ready to sprout and form new connections or neuroplasticity, but he or she must still do the work of movement practice to gain the skill of walking, and so must we.


Research reports that exercise modifies the structure and function of the hippocampus, a brain area important for learning and memory. Another study suggests that exercise enhanced neuroplasticity hinders cognitive decline associated with aging. (3)(4)(14)

Practicing a variety of movement patterns and using muscles in brand-new ways creates connections or nerve branches within the brain. This enhances the representation of the body map on the somatosensory/motor cortex map in your brain.  You can improve both physical and mental function at any age.

For a younger population motor skills and sports exercise activity are beneficial, because they may create a network of scaffolding for neural network reserve throughout the lifespan. This increased scaffolding in the brain may increase adaptability and flexibility to meet challenges throughout life. Moving your body creates a bank of motor memory that will benefit you for years to come. (5) Research shows that older adults may create an alternate circuitry that benefits them later in life. Mature adults can still gain strength and balance, interrupt decline and movement impairments as they age. (6)


The chosen exercise must have three main characteristics in order to affect your brain. You can do any type of physical activity as long as the following three conditions are met: meaningful, task specific, and repetitive. It is necessary to choose exercise activities that motivate and keep you alert. Most importantly the exercise must be practiced regularly for movement pattern processing to occur.

The exercise must be meaningful to you, so choose an activity that excites and holds your attention (i.e. a dance class or a sport you enjoy). The activity must be task specific or must mimic the activity for which you are training. For example, task specific activity occurs if you associate lifting a barbell overhead with lifting luggage for the next great vacation on your bucket list. Finally, the activity must be done repetitively to make a difference. Think of the number of times a baby rolls over or attempts to sit before he/she masters a skill. (2)


Regardless of your age, exercising the network in your brain is important, so that it can continue to grow new connections. However, if a body part is not utilized, its representation on the brain map shrinks. Frequent use of a body part increases its representation on the brain. The “use it or loose it” metaphor applies to brain science.

In the process of healing, an injured body part is often immobilized after an accident or injury. There is evidence that a reverse or negative neuroplasticity occurs with pain and lack of use. Pain muddles the connections in the brain and negates muscle memory. (8) At the appropriate point in time, our bodies and our minds must be carefully retrained after injury or disuse.

Some studies have even shown that mental practice of the gait cycle improves ambulation. Visualizing the specifics of a movement pattern activates the somatomotor cortex, and improves functional activity. (1)(7)(8).


Specifically research has shown the following:

  • Exercise modifies the structure and function of the hippocampus, a brain area important for learning and memory, neurogenesis, neural circuitry, neurotrophins, synaptic plasticity, neurotransmitters, vascularity. (3)
  • Resistance training benefits memory performance and verbal concept formation in seniors. (9)
  • Walking, stair climbing, moderate activities such as house work, yard work and gardening improve cerebral blood flow, lower the risk of Cerebral Vascular Accidents (strokes/TIA’s) and decrease the risk of vascular dementia. (10)
  • A study of older women participating in yoga movements showed increased cortical thickness in the areas involving memory, attention in the left prefrontal cortex, improved mood and cognition. The brain worked better possibly, because of a reduction in stress. (11)
  • Elderly men with Type 2 diabetes increased neurotrophic or brain building factors through a cycling program. (12)
  • Dancing improved neuroplasticity in seniors and counteracted age related grey matter decline. (13)


So keep challenging yourselves, and diversify your activities in a variety of environments and tasks throughout your lifespan to improve the flexibility and adaptability of your brains and your bodies. Keep activating those chemical messengers in the brain, develop the new highways of neural connections and remap movement patterns to create good mental circuitry. Find a physical activity that motivates and excites you, repeat it and enjoy it knowing you are helping your brain and your body.

Be safe, and add non-impact activities to start. Build slowly and gradually to avoid injury. Social activities, intellectual and physical challenges all help to advance positive neuroplasticity as you age. Occasionally when adding new activities to your repertoire you may feel some discomfort. You may have some other underlying condition. If starting new activity causes pain, listen to your body, assume a position of comfort, and seek the opinion of a licensed physical therapist or medical professional before starting something new. The contents of this blog are for informational purposes only and are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.


The Father of modern neuroscience, Santiago Ramon Y Cajal, drew brain neural networks with detail and precision in 1890 long ago before any imaging techniques were available. 80 of his works, considered works of art, are currently traveling the US and will be on display in NY in January 2018.

“The Beautiful Brain: The drawings of Santiago Ramon Y Cajal” January 9-March 31st, 2018 Grey Art Gallery ,  New York University. http://wam.umn.edu/calendar/cajal/

Today’s blog is dedicated to my father who lived his life in a state of physical activity. His body was his livelihood and his means for caring for his family, and he taught me to take care of mine. We all have a never ending well of strength inside that can surmount any challenge in life, and we can all find joy.

  • Hallet Neuroplasticity and Rehabilitation. Journal of Rehabilitation Research and Development: 2006;42;4;R17.
  • Paez A. PTH 6140 Motor Control. Clinical Applications of Current Evidence. The Aging Brain: Tying together Neuroplasticity, Executive Function, Activity and Movement. Fall 2013
  • Cooper C. et al, On the Run for Hippocampal Plasticity. Cold Spring Harb Perspective Me. 2017 May 11. Pii:a029736. Doi:10.1101/cshperspect.a029736 (Epub ahead of print)
  • Chieffi, S. et al Neuroprotective Effects of Physical Activity: Evidence fom Human and Animal Studies. Front Neurol 2017 May 22:8:188 doi:103389/fneur.2017.00188.eCollection 2017.Review. PMID:28588546
  • Reuter-Lorenz P.A. et al. Human Neurosurgery Psychiatry. 2009:80-942.
  • Heuninckx S. et al. Systems Neuroplasticity in the Aging Brain: Recruiting Additional Neural Resources for Successful Motor Performance in Elderly Persons. The Journal of Neuroscience. 2008.28:1:91-99.
  • Petersen-Felix S. et al. Neuroplasticity-an important factor in acute and chronic pain. Peer Review Article
  • Flor H. Cortical reorganization and chronic pain: implications for rehabilitation. Journal of Rehabilitative Medicine. 2003: 41:66-72
  • Lui-Ambrose T. et al. Resistance Training and Executive Function: A 12 Month Randomized Controlled Trial. Arch Intern Med. 2010: 170(2):170-178.
  • Walking and Moderate Exercise Help Prevent Dementia. Science Daily. Dec 21, 2007
  • Yoga May Boost Aging Brains. Health day Aug 9, 2017- access pub med Sept 24)
  • Brinkmann c, et al Effects of Cycling and Exergaming on Neurotrophic Factors in Elderly Type 2 Diabetic Men- A Preliminary Investigation. Exp Clin Endocrinal Diabetes 2017 Jul;125(7) 436-440 doi: 10.1055/s-0043-103967.Epub 2017.Apr 25. PMID: 28444660.
  • Muller P et al. Evolution of Neuroplasticity in Response to Physical Activity in Old Age: the Case for Dancing. Front Aging Neurosci. 2017 Mar 14;9:56. Doi: 10.3389/fnagi.2017.00056. eCollection 2017.
  • Deplanque D. et. al. Physical Activity: one of the easiest ways to protect the brain? Journal of Neurology Neurosurgery Psychiatry. 2009:80:942.