We all know the importance of exercise for our physical health, but movement also has a profound effect on your mental performance and health. 

Like any organ, your brain needs oxygen and glucose to function. As you exercise, your heart rate increases, your circulation improves and more oxygen and glucose flow to your brain, enabling it to work better. Research has demonstrated that physical exercise helps give your brain an immediate boost and can help protect it over the long term.

Short-term Mental Performance

A study from the University of Illinois found that students who had walked for just 20 minutes performed significantly better in cognitive tests than their counterparts who had been sitting still. Other studies have suggested that a similarly small amount of exercise in the morning can make you 23% more productive throughout the rest of the day. Think about it. How many days last week did you not exercise? For each one, it probably took you longer to do your work than was necessary. 

How could you apply this research to hack your mental performance every day? Could you walk or cycle to work? Could you buy an exercise bike and clock 15 minutes each morning?

You really don’t have to exercise for long to get significant benefits of increasing blood flow to your brain.

Long-term Mental Health

Exercise can also help keep your brain protected over the longer term – but for this you need to work up a bit of a sweat. As you work out more vigorously, your brain increases the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). BDNF is a protein that plays a significant role in the process of neurogenesis, the formation of new brain cells, and is an important regulator of neuroplasticity, the mechanisms underlying learning. This is why exercise is known to help prevent dementia. 

  • How can you also ensure that 2 or 3 days a week you get your heart pumping through more vigorous exercise? 
  • Time to dust off those running shoes? 
  • Maybe try a new class at the gym? 
  • How about a game of tennis?

To summarise the research into applicable insights:

  1. Aim for 20 minutes of moderate exercise every day (ideally before work). If time won’t allow this, consider short sessions of high-intensity interval training (HIIT). See exercise as an ‘oxygen breakfast’ for your brain. 

  2. Aim to do longer and more intense exercise sessions 2-3 times per week. For the protective qualities of exercise it needs to be aerobic, such as brisk walking, running, cycling or swimming and for 30 minutes or more.
  3. Take more breaks throughout the day and when you have a break, move! Focus on increasing your blood flow rather than on burning calories.

So there you have it, exercise is not only good for your body, it’s also great for your brain.



3 point review

  • Exercising for just 15 minutes per day will produce significant benefits
  • More vigorous exercise 2 – 3 times a week may offer protection against dementia
  • Take breaks throughout the day and move more!


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