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The Brain-Changing Benefits of Exercise

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When you think of why we exercise, you probably think of weight loss, or muscle gain, first.

In fact those might be the only things that come to mind, and for good reason--we’ve known from decades of fitness science that regular physical exercise does help us shed the pounds or build us up, depending on what we’re aiming for.

But science is always moving forward, and that means we’re learning way more about the benefits of working out.

Now, here’s the amazing thing: we now know that exercise can actually boost your life in countless areas other than weight loss! A few highlights:


  • Adults that move vigorously for at least 150 minutes per week not only have a lower chance of developing aging-related illnesses like Alzheimer’s and dementia, but also have stronger bone density and healthier hearts.
  • We now know of a wide variety of mental health benefits that come with regular exercise. Apart from the more obvious benefits like enhancing mood, exercise can actually help reorganize your brain.

You read that right. Working out can change your brain for the better. And it’s this second point that we want to explore with you here.

Exercising the body to feed the mind: an expert’s take

Regular exercise can vastly improve your motivation, focus, and memory. Some have even argued that exercise provides an even greater beneficial impact to your brain than any other area of the body.

Surprised? So were we. To learn more about how exercise-driven movement rewires the brain and how we can use this as our ”secret sauce” that we need to reach our goals on the mat and IRL, we reached out to leading esports organization, Fnatic, and their Head of Training, Brad Bowie.

We asked Brad to shed a little light on this very compelling topic in a short interview. Let’s jump right in to get his insights!

First, let’s talk science

Let’s start by saying that the brain is an incredibly important organ in that it determines how we feel, think, and how we act in certain situations. It is not only crucial to everyday life but also has the capability to adapt and grow based on the circumstances we are in. And just as we can work out our biceps, we can also strengthen the brain to become stronger and more flexible.

That’s because exercise promotes a protein in our brain called Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor or BDNF. BDNF is almost like fertilizer for your mind. It helps to promote new brain cells, forge new pathways and in turn positively impact our neurotransmitters1, 2. Neurotransmitters, in essence, connect the different departments of our brain so the structure can work together as a whole.

You see, when we move our body, neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine fire back and forth and increase our motivation levels, mood, focus and reaction times. After a single workout these benefits can be enjoyed for at least the following two hours.

Exercises also release happy hormones known as endorphins. Having a fresh supply of these neurotransmitters can help with mental clarity, emotional control, increased focus and euphoric feelings

which can help to foster a positive mindset and internal dialogue which can help the player in stressful situations.

It also fires neural pathways throughout the brain lending to potentially help the player’s in-game mechanics (keyboard control and mouse aim) feel more smooth and responsive.

As mentioned above, exercise enhances and creates new neural pathways throughout the brain. These pathways aren’t just exercise related - our brains then use these pathways to learn more effectively and boost memory.

Much like sleep, exercise helps carry away metabolic waste that the brain releases as a by-product of its activity, further enhancing its ability to operate at an optimal level.

That being said, when exercising at least 3-5 times per week for a minimum of 30 minutes per session, you can expect to immediately reap short-term benefits like increased focus and the long term benefits like protection from illness. Talk about a win-win situation.



Different exercise types for different benefits

Aerobic exercise like running or jumping rope are excellent for the brain. This kind of exercise not only helps to maintain a healthy cardiovascular system, but also aids in brain health by priming the brain for learning by enhancing neural pathways throughout the body, releasing dopamine and serotonin, and releasing proteins called growth factors.

Resistance or strength training helps to strengthen the body through many different movement patterns, correct imbalances caused by excessive sitting, and improve postural endurance.

According to Brad, this is very important especially for the esports players that are used to sitting for long periods of time.

Mobility exercises like stretching or doing yoga helps to either improve or maintain the body’s ability to move through postures pain free and, like resistance training, is used to correct imbalances.

When should you train? Well...are you an “early bird” 🌅🐦 or a “night owl” 🌃🦉?

The short answer is that the ideal time to exercise depends on the person who’s working out. Everyone is different.

Optimal training times are impacted by the individual’s routine and chronotype (their particular circadian rhythm).

For example, one person’s 10am may feel different to another person’s 10am. In saying that, Brad recommends that low impact training (steady state cardio/mobility) done earlier in your day and high impact/high output training done later in your day (weight training, HIIT, sprints, etc).

These aren’t hard-and-fast rules, though. Overall, the most important thing is that the training is completed, even if you aren’t always training at your favorite time (#noexcuses!)

Keep it fresh

According to Brad “everything works, some things just work better and for longer, but nothing works forever.”

Whether you are a seasoned professional or just taking the first steps on your journey, sometimes plateaus can happen. Remember that progress is not a straight line but rather full of ups and downs.

Additionally, be aware of your physical and mental energy during training and if you notice negative emotions, unproductive dialogue, or physical pain for any kind, take a step back and honestly ask yourself what is not working.

Maybe it’s time to switch up the exercise you are doing. As mentioned earlier, when we exercise we invigorate current neural pathways and also forge new ones.

The same mechanism takes place when we are learning a new skill. Gaining an intermediate level skill in a number of different activities can help keep the brain adaptable and malleable to new stimuli, increasing one’s ability to problem solve and learn new things faster.

When undertaking various types of training you are forcing the body to have to coordinate in an unfamiliar pattern and therefore adapt to the new stimulus.

Train for your brain

In conclusion, although doing some exercise is always better than doing none at all, in order to reap the incredible long-term cognitive benefits of working out, find the exercises that you truly like to do! That way it’s easier to keep up the good habits and be consistent.

As you do, your mind will be more focused, energized, clear, and you will have a better chance to improve your performances in all areas of life--whether in your Freeletics workouts, in competitive esports, your everyday working life, and beyond.

And remember this: the sooner you can get out there and get moving, the sooner your brain can start leveling up.

Ready to Rewire your Brain?

REFERENCES

Liou, S. (2019, July 12). Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) – HOPES Huntington's Disease Information. HOPES Huntington’s Disease Information.

Sleiman, S. F., Henry, J., Al-Haddad, R., el Hayek, L., Abou Haidar, E., Stringer, T., Ulja, D., Karuppagounder, S. S., Holson, E. B., Ratan, R. R., Ninan, I., & Chao, M. V. (2016). Exercise promotes the expression of brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) through the action of the ketone body β-hydroxybutyrate. ELife, 5.