Leading the Way to a Smaller Waistline and a Bigger Brain

Smaller Waistline and Bigger Brain

Contributed by Julia C. Basso, Post-doctoral Research Associate at the Center for Neural Science and New York University

Smaller Waistline and Bigger Brain

A constant regimen of aerobic exercise helps to fight obesity, decrease weight gain over time, and when we do enough of it, get a smaller waistline.  As we exercise and lose weight, another part of our bodies grow:  our brains.

As adults, new neurons or brain cells are produced in only two parts of the brain, the dentate gyrus of the hippocampus and the subventricular zone of the lateral ventricles.  This phenomenon of new neuron growth is known as neurogenesis.  Though the exact functional purpose of neurogenesis is still unknown, neurogenesis, especially in the hippocampus, is thought to support learning, memory, and cognition.  Several factors have been shown to decrease rates of neurogenesis, such as prolonged stress, sleep deprivation, and aging.  Fortunately, one surefire way of increasing neurogenesis has been found: exercise.

Neuron Longevity

In 1999, van Praag and colleagues discovered that allowing rodents to voluntary run in wheels causes double the number of new neurons to be born in the hippocampus.  Running also causes these new neurons to survive for longer periods of time.  These neurons them become embedded into the neural circuits of our brains, growing for example from the hippocampus to other regions of the brain such as the prefrontal cortex, a region involved in attention, problem-solving, and planning.  Compared to their sedentary counterparts, neurons in exercised rodents are also more physically complex, a feature that enables the neurons to better communicate with one another.  These brain changes are thought to be caused by exercise-induced increases in a protein known as brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF).  BDNF acts as a fertilizer for our brains, causing enhanced brain growth.  (See Voss et al., 2013 for a review)

Enhanced Learning and Memory

Though these changes in the brain are interesting, do they really matter in any functional way?  The answer is definitely yes!  Exercised rodents show enhanced learning and memory, especially in tasks that depend on the hippocampus.  For example, compared to sedentary rodents, exercised rodents are able to acquire the learning of a new task faster, such as finding a reward in an environment. Plus, they remember it for longer.

Has any of this preclinical work translated to humans?  Again, the answer is yes!  Though neurogenesis happens throughout our adult life, the rate of neurogenesis decreases as we age.  As we get older, the hippocampus shrinks and with that deterioration comes memory loss.  Obviously, strategies to help decrease these age-related brain changes are needed.  Therefore, based on the rodent findings discussed above, Erickson and colleagues (2011) set out to test whether a long-term regimen of aerobic exercise helps to decrease age-related hippocampal loss.  120 healthy older adults (ages 55 to 80) were randomly assigned to a moderate-intensity aerobic exercise program or a stretching and toning program. This program included three 50-minute sessions per week for one year.

Leading the Way to a Smaller Waistline and a Bigger BrainExercise Intervention and Results

To examine the volume of specific brain regions, the scientists took magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans of their brains both before and after this one-year period.  While the stretching and toning control group showed a 1.4% decrease in the size of the hippocampus, the aerobic exercise group showed a 2% increase!  Additionally, the greater the improvement in fitness level, the greater the increase in the size of the hippocampus.  Not only did one year of aerobic exercise stave off the natural progression of brain atrophy, but it increased the size of the brain.  Keep in mind that the exercise intervention used here was simply walking, so if any of you older adults are doing more intense exercise than this, you may be getting, even more, brain benefits!

Exercise in older adults has also been shown to increase the size of other areas of the brain such as the prefrontal cortex (Colcombe et al., 2006; see Erickson et al., 2014 for review).  Along with these physical brain changes, exercise also enhances cognitive functioning. This happens especially in those tasks that depend on the prefrontal cortex (Voss et al., 2013).  Considering the robust physical changes that exercise has on the hippocampus, future studies are warranted. These studies should test the functioning of this area of our brains.  This region is one of the most sensitive to age-related deterioration. When the hippocampus is damages, it leads to cognitive impairment, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease.  Therefore, studying whether exercise in older adults improves hippocampal-dependent cognition is an important area of future research!

Fitness and Aging

In conclusion, the more exercise you get and the more fit you become, the better your chances are at having a successful aging experience.  By making exercise a part of your weekly routine, you can help prevent age-related brain atrophy and cognitive decline.  Rodent studies have shown that exercising at any age enhances neurogenesis in the hippocampus.  Therefore, even if you have been sedentary up to this point, no need to worry. You can increases brain growth any time you start!



Colcombe SJ, Erickson KI, Scalf PE< Kim JS, Prakash R, McAuley E, Elavsky S, Marguez DX, Hu L, Kramer AF (2006). Aerobic exercise training increases brain volume in aging humans. The Journals of Gerontology. Series A, Biological Science and Medical Sciences 61(11): 1166-1170.

Erickson KI, Leckie RL, Weinstein AM (2014). Physical activity, fitness, and gray matter volume. Neurobiology of Aging 35(Suppl 2): S20-8.

Erickson KI, Voss MW, Prakash RS, Basak C, Szabo A, Chaddock L, Kim JS, Heo S, Alves H, White SM, Wojcicki TR, Mailey E, Vieira VJ, Martin SA, Pence BD, Woods JA, McAuley E, Kramer AF (2011). Exercise training increases size of hippocampus and improves memory. Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences of the United States of America 108(7): 3017-3022.

van Praag H, Kempermann G, Gage FH (1999). Running increases cell proliferation and neurogenesis in the adult mouse dentate gyrus. Nature Neuroscience 2(3): 266-270.

Voss MW, Vivar C, Kramer AF, van Praag H (2013). Bridging animal and human models of exercise-induced brain plasticity. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 17(10): 525-544.

You Might Like:

Ice hole polar plunge

The Science of Temperature Therapy

Temperature therapy (also known as “thermal therapy” or “thermotherapy”) involves the use of heat or cold to improve health and function. Interestingly, thermotherapy has been around for centuries, with ancient cultures regularly using hot springs,...

The Predictors of Longevity You Need to Care About

Living a long and healthy life is a universal aspiration, and with the publication of Peter Aittia’s new book “Outlive”, it has never been a bigger focus. With this has come the realisation that, while...
Women training together

How Overtraining and Undertraining Impacts Hormonal Health

While maintaining a healthy hormonal balance is essential for overall health and wellbeing, it is an often-overlooked component of women’s health. Hormones play a vital role in regulating various bodily functions, including metabolism, energy, mood,...
Upper body strength

Upper Body Strength in Post-Menopausal Women

Menopause is a unique time in the human life, and with it comes a myriad of changes that can have wide reaching health implications. However, over the last 20 years we have seen a strong...
Exercise partners congratulating each other during workout

Exercise After Menopause: What You Need To Know

Menopause is one of the most significant events in a woman’s life, and with it comes several changes that can affect function. Moreover, the post-menopausal period comes with many health considerations that can have a...
Jump Rope

Can Athletes Benefit from More Mitochondria?

Women playing soccer

Exercise Research is Underrepresented in Female Athletes

Thanksgiving meal

Keeping on Track: Minimize Weight Gain During the Holidays

Female athlete

What is a High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) Workout Anyway?

women high jumping

Do Ketogenic Diets Reduce Anaerobic Performance?


The Surfing Affect on Mood and Well-Being

older couple standing on a wood bridge

A Trick To The Foundation Of Youth?

Woman weightlifting

Injured? Increase Your Muscle Mass with Blood Flow Restriction Training

jump rope

Which Is the Best for Aerobic Performance – HIIT or Endurance?

The 4 Best Core Activation Exercises | Forever Fit Science

The 4 Best Core Activation Exercises | Forever Fit Science

Leave a Reply