Exercise & Cognition

Feel better after a session with a Personal Trainer? Many have heard of the ‘runners high’ and themselves may have experienced a feeling of elevated mood during or after exercise. Some may also find themselves describing it as exercise helping to clear their mind and focus. This isn’t simply placebo and the beneficial effects exercise has on the brain extend beyond a transient increase in mood. Physical activity has been long known to prevent, delay or attenuate a great deal of ailments related to pathologies or otherwise aberrant functioning of the brain including; addiction, mood disorders, traumatic brain injury, impaired cognition and more (Lynch et al., 2013; Ströhle, 2009; Grealy et al., 1999; Baker et al., 2010).  


However, even for the young and healthy but otherwise sedentary, exercise can still potentially improve cognition significantly. This is evident from a young age with those at school who are more physically active on average having been found to be correlated with better performance on academic tests and on neuropsychological tests (Castelli et al., 2007; Buck et al., 2008). There are plausible associations to suggest it is more than mere correlation, but there is in fact a case for causation. For example, there is an association between aerobic fitness in children with increased brain volume in structures related to information processing and certain sub-types of memory such as the dorsal striatum and hippocampus respectively (Chaddock et al., 2010a and 2010b). 


Continuing on into young adulthood, a time where cognition is characterised by relative stability and peak cognitive performance. Due to this, the positive aspects are less likely to be immediately apparent. As we know an investment in health is a lifelong endeavour and many of the benefits may not be fully realised until later in life. That being said, there is still enough evidence to suggest there are cognitive benefits to exercising at this age (Stroth et al., 2009).  


Once we are past our physical prime, not all is lost. There are many benefits to be seen with increasing age that can only come from experience and the wisdom that comes with it. Now it is the aim of maintaining cognition or at least fending off impairment to the best of our abilities. There are many modifiable lifestyle factors that help achieve this and exercise is one of them. As Richard et al (2003) has shown in a prospective study that those who continued activity well into adulthood maintained their cognitive abilities for longer and the rate of decline was significantly slower during their 40’s and 50’s.  



Delving into these nuances a bit further; most of these studies have been primarily been performed in relation to aerobic exercise. More recently, studies have examined whether there are beneficial effects of resistance training (RT) on cognition and if so, are they different from those of aerobic exercise. A recent meta-analysis (a study of studies) by Landrigan et al (2019), found that RT improved several aspects of cognition. Interestingly, although it was shown to improve executive function (which includes functions related to reasoning and problem solving), it did not improve working memory (the ability to manipulate short term memory) although this has not been a universal finding (Landrigan et al., 2019). In individuals who are older, it has been found to have more global positive effects on cognition, but resistance must be sufficient i.e. above 50% 1RM (Lachman et al., 2006). Intriguingly, the molecular mechanisms by which memory is improved is differs between the two forms of exercise (Cassilhas et al., 2012). It can thus be hypothesised that the combination of both forms of exercise would lead to superior benefits. Unfortunately, as far as I’ve been able to find there hasn’t yet been a study performed on a relevant target population. The closest I’ve managed to find has been a study assessing learning and memory performed on rats suffering morphine withdrawal comparing different exercise modalities. Not the most applicable to the general population I think we can all agree. Nevertheless, concurrent training was shown to be superior to either aerobic or resistance training alone (Zarrinkalam et al., 2016). 


In conclusion, exercise has been shown to have beneficial effects on many aspects of cognition across an individual’s lifespan. These benefits are likely more pronounced during childhood, adolescence and in mid-to-late adulthood. Furthermore, aerobic exercise may be the superior form of exercise for cognition when compared directly resistance training. However, this may simply be due to a lesser quantity of high quality studies performed on resistance training and cognition. However, there is a case to be made for combining both forms to reap greater rewards than either alone and it deserves further study.  

If you are seeking to improve or maintian your health, a Personal Trainer may be the perfect solution. Find a Personal Trainer on this platform for free. Simply search for a profile near you and contact the PT direct to begin your fitness journey.



Picture source: Alina Grubnyak at Unsplash 




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Buck SM , Hillman CH , Castelli DM. The relation of aerobic fitness to stroop task performance in preadolescent children. Med Sci Sports Exercise40: 166–172, 2008. 


Cassilhas, R.C., Lee, K.S., Fernandes, J., Oliveira, M.G.M., Tufik, S., Meeusen, R. and De Mello, M.T., 2012. Spatial memory is improved by aerobic and resistance exercise through divergent molecular mechanisms. Neuroscience, 202, pp.309-317. 


Castelli, D.M., Hillman, C.H., Buck, S.M. and Erwin, H.E., 2007. Physical fitness and academic achievement in third-and fifth-grade students. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 29(2), pp.239-252. 


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Grealy, M.A., Johnson, D.A. and Rushton, S.K., 1999. Improving cognitive function after brain injury: the use of exercise and virtual reality. Archives of physical medicine and rehabilitation, 80(6), pp.661-667. 


Lachman ME , Neupert SD , Bertrand R , Jette AM. The effects of strength training on memory in older adults. J Aging Phys Act14: 59–73, 2006. 


Landrigan, J.F., Bell, T., Crowe, M., Clay, O.J. and Mirman, D., 2019. Lifting cognition: a meta-analysis of effects of resistance exercise on cognition. Psychological research, pp.1-17. 


Lynch, W.J., Peterson, A.B., Sanchez, V., Abel, J. and Smith, M.A., 2013. Exercise as a novel treatment for drug addiction: a neurobiological and stage-dependent hypothesis. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 37(8), pp.1622-1644. 


Richards M , Hardy R , Wadsworth MEJ. Does active leisure protect cognition? Evidence from a national birth cohort. Soc Sci Med56: 785–792, 2003. 


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Zarrinkalam, E., Heidarianpour, A., Salehi, I., Ranjbar, K. and Komaki, A., 2016. Effects of endurance, resistance, and concurrent exercise on learning and memory after morphine withdrawal in rats. Life sciences, 157, pp.19-24. 


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LeadingPersonalTrainers.com blogs are written by our team of coaches, trainers, and nutritionists to help you on your way to finding the perfect trainer and staying on course with your fitness journey. Remember to discuss any specific health issues that you may have, with your medical professional and PT before starting any new exercise regime.