Chances are, if you’ve ever set foot in a gym, it was to build muscle or get fit—and there’s nothing wrong with that. But working out can have way more of an impact on your body than just physically.
“Exercise can help improve mood, reduce stress and anxiety, and help you sleep better,” says Alissa Rumsey, a strength and conditioning specialist in New York. That brainpower boost can set you up for academic success all year long.
Here are 3 ways exercise can upgrade your life (that aren’t just physical):
“Exercise increases your heart rate, which helps supply your brain cells with plenty of oxygen for brain power and growth,” says Rumsey. With that boost, regular exercise can improve your memory, focus, and ability to process information. Translation: It can help you perform better in school.
Scientists at the University of Illinois have found that moderate exercise, performed three days a week, improves memory by literally growing your brain volume. The hippocampus, the part of the brain primarily associated with memory, naturally shrinks as we age. But the researchers found that regular exercise actually boosts the volume of the hippocampus, thereby improving memory.
A study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that students who started running just 30 minutes a week reported improved concentration in class (in addition to better mood and better-quality sleep).
“Physical activity helps me when I’m stuck on homework or can’t get started,” says Jill, a junior in Bloomington, Minnesota. “I can go exercise for a little bit, and then I’m able to focus so much better when I go back to it.”
Regular cycling and stretching exercises can improve your test skills, according to a study published in the Journal of Health Psychology. The researchers also found those who were physically active on a regular basis had better motor skills (i.e., all the actions that involve muscle movement) compared to people with a sedentary lifestyle.
Exercise stimulates the release of a chemical in the body called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which is associated with decreases in anxiety and depression, according to a 2016 study. BDNF supports neuron growth and survival, the capacity to learn, and memory function. It has also been shown to positively affect our body’s ability to keep blood sugar levels consistent, which is important for maintaining energy, concentration, and overall health, as well as stabilizing our emotions and stress levels.
“I run every day after school as a way to vent out my anger from the day and to get out of the house. It definitely relieves my stress, which helps motivate me to achieve more things after that. It clears my head and helps me to be productive and study,” says Geoffrey*, a senior in Raleigh, North Carolina.
It seems logical that exercising would sap your energy—but several studies show the opposite is actually true. One study from the University of Georgia’s Exercise Psychology Laboratory found that regular exercise increased the energy of sedentary participants by 65 percent. According to its findings, low-intensity exercise is actually a better energy booster than working out harder (though both low- and moderate-intensity exercise increased participants’ energy).
“When I’m doing more physical activities, I have more energy and more motivation to do my school work,” says Makayla, a junior in Hondo, Texas.
How does it work? Another study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology found that physical exercise stimulates the development of mitochondria—your cells’ internal power plants—in brain cells. That stimulation ups your body’s energy and can help boost your productivity.
How to make time for fitness
Here’s the thing: Any movement is good for your brain. “A lot of studies [on the benefits of exercise] look at walking, so it doesn’t have to be anything really intense,” explains Rumsey. In other words, you don’t need to sign up for a weight-lifting competition to feel the effects.
Grab your friends for a basketball game, take a walk around the neighborhood, or go dancing.
Add activity by doing things like parking farther from buildings, walking instead of taking buses, and using stairs.
“There’s no need to do exercise that you hate,” says Rumsey. “Try different classes like boxing, swimming, yoga, Pilates, and biking.”
Rather than catch up via text, go for a walk with a friend.
Get involved in a way that’s social but also boosts your activity levels.
Alissa Rumsey, MS, RD, CSCS, founder of Alissa Rumsey Nutrition and Wellness, New York.
Erickson, K. I., Voss, M., Prakash, R., Basak, C., et al. (2011). Exercise training increases size of hippocampus and improves memory. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 108(7), 3017–3022. doi:10.1073/pnas.1015950108
Garber, M. (2017). Exercise as a stress coping mechanism in a pharmacy student population. American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education, 81(3).
Hötting, K., Reich, B., Holzschneider, K., Kauschke, K., et al. (2012). Differential cognitive effects of cycling versus stretching/coordination training in middle-aged adults. Health Psychology, 31(2), 145–155.
Kalak, N., Gerber, M., Kirov, R., Mikoteit, T., et al. (2012). Daily morning running for three weeks improved sleep and psychological functioning in healthy adolescents compared with controls. Journal of Adolescent Health, 51(6), 615–622. doi:10.1016/j.jadohealth.2012.02.020
Nofuji, Y., Suwa, M., Sasaki, H., Ichimiya, A., et al. (2012). Different circulating brain-derived neurotrophic factor responses to acute exercise between physically active and sedentary subjects. Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, 11(1), 83–88.
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Sleiman, S. F., Henry, J., Al-Haddad, R., & El Hayek, et al. (2016). Exercise promotes the expression of brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) through the action of the ketone body β-hydroxybutyrate. Elife, 5.
Steiner, J., Murphy, E. A., McClellan, J., Carmichael, M., et al. (2011). Exercise training increases mitochondrial biogenesis in the brain. Journal of Applied Physiology, 1066–1071. doi:10.1152/japplphysiol.00343.2011