Boosting the Effects of Exercise on the Brain

Brain science is constantly changing and discovering new, exciting ideas . . .

. . . but one thing that seems to keep popping up is how great exercise is for your body, and for your brain.

Last week, I told you about a study that focused on the effect that physical activity can have on an aging brain.

But, is there a way to get even more out of exercise?

Cay Anderson-Hanley, PhD and researchers at Union College in Schenectady, NY put this question to the test.

They hypothesized that, although good old fashioned exercise can have a powerful effect on the brain and cognitive function, if you add a level of cognition to the exercise, the effect will be even greater.


So, researchers randomly assigned participants (aged 55+) to either a cybercycle group or an exercise control group.

The exercise control group rode a stationary bike 45 minutes a day, 5 days a week, for 3 months – increasing their time increments as the months went on.

To test the hypothesis that an extra level of cognition would increase the impact exercise had on the brain, the experimental group rode a cybercycle, which is a stationary bike (just like the control group) with a 3D screen in front of it – much like an arcade game.

While riding the cybercycle, participants competed with a virtual companion, very much like an arcade game. This added an extra level of focus and cognition to the exercise.

In order to measure the change in cognitive function and brain structure, researchers used color trials (ability to quickly connect colored and numbered dots), Stroop C (name the color of the ink of a different color word), and Digital Span Backwards (success at saying a string of numbers backwards).

To measure brain change, neurotrophic factor (BDNF) levels using fasting plasma samples were collected during pre- and post-tests. BDNF protects and supports the growth of new neurons in the brain.

So, what did the researchers find?

Compared to baseline, the cybercycling group showed significantly better cognitive ability than the control group did. Participants who rode the cybercycles also showed increased BDNF levels.

So, this research supports the notion that a combination of exercise and cognitive activity can have an extraordinary effect on the brain.

You can find more about this study in The American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

For more strategies for strengthening your cognitive control, check out our Brain Science webinar series.

How have you (or your clients) used exercise to keep your brain strong? Please leave your thoughts in the comment section below.


Please Leave A Comment



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  3. Viorel Bungau says:

    “Copper role in nerve cell metabolism in schizophrenia and cancer cell metabolism.”
    With your permission, we suggest a research topic related to mental illness. If there are no notable morphopatological changes between normal brain affect and
    create ill with schizophrenia, however, the schizophrenics were found excessive copper deposits in the central nucleus, which led to the idea of ​​ treating schizophrenia with Cuprenil (Penicillamin). Since Monoaminoxidase (MAO) is activated by copper, the idea is to remember and experimentally verified.
    Cytochrome-oxidase structure has two atoms of copper. It is known that in conditions of acidosis (oxidative potential), the principle electronegativity metals, copper is removed from combinations of the Iron. So cytochrome oxidase will contain two atoms of iron instead of copper atoms, which changes its oxidation-reduction potential, but (most important), and color. If the copper was green, the iron is red, which radically change its absorption spectrum, based on the principle of complementary colors. If neoplastic cells, because acidosis is overactive acid form of cytochrome oxidase (red with iron atoms), which will absorb the additional green energy hydrogen atom (exclusively), the production of H20 , so water will prevail, in Schizophrenia , neuronal intracellular alkaline environment, will promote the basic form of cytochrome oxidase (green with copper atoms), which will oxidize only carbon atoms, the energy absorption of red (complementary) and production of CO2, so the fire will prevail. Drawn from this theory interdependent relationship between water and fire, of hydrogen(H2O) and carbon(CO2) ,in a controlled relationship with oxygen (O2). Indeed, water quenched the fire, as fire is to drain the water, so that antagonistic relationship between these elements, which seems at first sight is one of interdependence for proper development of cellular metabolic processes. The balance between these two elements is maintained by strict control mechanisms. The strain, these mechanisms are exhausted, and imbalances occur that can not be controlled, favoring carcinogenesis. Excess water will extinguish fire , even all, drowning cellular structures, reducing cell function in a primordial form. Normality consists of alternating the two forms of cytochrome oxidase by successive passage of acid in the alkaline form, in terms of acid-basic balance maintained within normal limits. If neoplastic cell is dark continuously, in schizophrenic neuron is continuous light. Sincerely yours, Dr. Viorel Bungau

  4. sara joy david says:

    I have clients do on the spot jogging with qualities they wish to incorporate: “Safe, secure, protected”, “brave, bold, daring, courageous”, “confident and assured”, “calm, relaxed, serene”, “clarity, justice freedom”, etc. I do this myself. It is fun and it works.

  5. Sheila says:

    Hi it is Sheila again, after checking with my husband, he says that our account has not only been charged once but twice for the webinar. I whould like someone to respond to this. Thank you Sheila

    • Katelin NICABM Staff says:

      Hello Sheila,

      I will check this as soon as I get into the office (we’re a bit delayed because of the winter storm that is hitting the Northeast).

      I will send you an email with more information.

      Thanks so much,

      Katelin NICABM Staff

  6. Sheila says:

    Please check to see why my gold membership is not active on the webinars. Thank you Sheila

  7. Elaine Velka, Social Worker, Cleveland, Ohio says:

    I have joined the webinar from home, thereby giving me a greater opportunity to focus on the information. Over the past ten years, I have utilized information about brain physiology and functioning in order to give my patients the information as to why the skills and cognitive restructuring strategies that are presented to them are useful/functional. I have seen the first two videos and have enjoyed these well researched and presented bodies of information. I have especially appreciated the easily accessible paradigms (metaphorical constructs) that allow this information to be integrated to an accessible knowledge base. Thanks so much for making these bodies of work so accessible to so many of us engaged in this work.

    • Kathryn ZIEMNIK says:

      Hello. I hate to bother you. Please bear with me.
      I went to grade school Ascension and High School Nazareth with Kathy Ross. We are organizing a mini reunion. I was given an old email address from the St. Joe’s Acad. Alumnae Dept. If you would please be kind enough to have Kathy email me, I would very much appreciate it.

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      ticket car insurance free quotes having some

    • Caelyn says:

      I think you hit a bueyllse there fellas!

  8. Paula, writer, Santa Fe, NM says:

    I take a couple of dance classes that involve learning choreography as well as physical exertion. My experience is that the mental part (learning the sequence of moves and coordinating them with the music) is what makes a lesson energizing for both body and mind; if I’m improvising or “free dancing,” it may exercise my body, but my mind isn’t as engaged.

  9. Madeleine Eames, therapist/yoga teacher, BC Canada says:

    Yes I thought that “exercise with awareness” either through breath, body awareness or mindfulness, was research from Harvard that proved most beneficial for brain and body… such as yoga and tai chi.

  10. Joyce Schmid, SE Therapist, Switzerland says:

    The Neurobiologist, Gerald Hüther from Germany proclaims that the best exercises to keep your brain active and functioning are juggling, playing music and dancing. These activities require constant concentration, phycical movement and are always changing by adding new combinations. And they are also fun!

  11. Jan Wetterer (retired), Washington County, Maryland says:

    I do Lumosity at least 4-5 times a week.

  12. Ruth Garner-Loew, Healthy Interiors/Healthy Baby Spaces Consultant, Austin TX says:

    These tests were done with a 50+ age group, but what are the implications of using exercise and cognitive activity to stimulate children with learning difficulties, or to help solve obesity problems among young children by getting them to exercise more while increasing their ability to learn. Perhaps these studies have been already been done or are in the works…?

  13. Eileen Gaitonde India says:

    We ask our mentally challenged kids to do Brain Gym daily and find it helpful for them

  14. mia barbera, MS icf certified ontological coach,social worker, dance teacher, ex physiologist says:

    I appreciate the study. It’s not advocating the activity – just structuring a study.

    Such resourcefulness in many comments. Feldenkrias, somatic experiencing, colors…..

    Dance, of course! Studies show the cognitive benefits of dance and also the relationship between agility and delaying dementia. For me, it is a practice of skill development, play, mutual respect and caring, attention, awareness of myself and other and generosity – to sense and honor the essence of the lead’s dance. Natural play – yes I agree. I enjoy both playful dance and competition. My teaching contemplative style puts the learner in charge – build a relationship with the music, then learn steps to add to that. All kinds of brain benefits.

    I apply “mindfulness”/attention intentionally – approach as if it all of it matters and as play. A perfect storm.

  15. Froma. South Africa says:

    Hi. Please assist. I have signed up for your free webinar but am not receiving them. I am only receiving emails advising about the webinars. .
    Can you please please tell me what I should be doing. I am
    really looking forward to participating.

    Thank you.

    • Katelin NICABM Staff says:

      Hello Froma,

      With the free membership you will receive emails with your access information on Wednesdays. In those emails there are links to the video and audio webcasts.

      Thank you very much,

      Katelin NICABM Staff

  16. Damian, builder,Melbourne,Australia says:

    Hello, I have signed up for your free web air but I don’t seem
    to be receiving them. I am only getting these written emails.
    Can you please please tell me what I’m doing wrong. I am
    rely looking forward to the web air and I’m missing them all.

    Very kind regards,


    • Katelin NICABM Staff says:

      Hello Damian,

      With the free membership you will receive your access information in emails on the Wednesdays when the webinars are taking place. You can use those links to watch or listen to the webinars.


      Katelin NICABM Staff

  17. Russell J. Wilson, New Zealand says:

    Just as important, for those with diabetes, or with patients / clients with diabetes mellitus, is that there’s a free PDF article availlable from PubMed by Anderson-Hanley, same author, out in “2012”, on the same topic, article published in J Diab Sci Tech — vol 6 #4 849-857

  18. Martha Holschen, GCFP Bothell, WA says:

    Feldenkrais Method challenges the brain in either an Awareness Through Movement® lesson or a Functional Integration® lesson. This cognitive stimulus continues to be active in the brain for variable amounts of time after the lesson. This depends on what the participant does in the first few minutes following either lesson. Still, movement related to the lesson will rekindle curiosity later, as much as weeks later if the client is so inclined to engage. This is especially good for rerouting neurons to find new ways to do things after a variety of brain injuries.

  19. Jean Johnson says:

    Yes, I do!

  20. Gwynne Reese, M.Div. Sedona, AZ says:

    I was wondring how a study with the multitasking method as described would compare with a similar study with the mindfulness approach as I see other readers have argued in favor of. My bet would be on the latter, particularly given the message of Dan Siegel MD, delivered as a part Ruth’s webinar series on Nov. 20, 2013, on the powerful benefits of mindfulness practice on brain physiology.

  21. Rossen Russev, engineer, Bulgaria says:

    Yes, I am sure in this. I am trying to implement this approach in my practice – professional and personal, but I need of more knowledge about this.

  22. Rochelle says:

    I think physical activity is great for the body and the brain, in terms of welfare, health and development / boosting; but, in my opinion, you get better results from any activity if it is made with mindfulness, awareness (“be present”), i.e., one activity per time, both activities together does seem advisable… so somehow I agree with Teresa Stern and Tess Richardson…

  23. Melinda Alston, therapist says:

    Dr mezernich just had an interview on brain science podcast that I think is directly relatable. his take was exercise in a natural our game play setting. the gym and repetitive motions are not as good at creating new connections as they do not challenge us. interesting.

  24. Donna Quance, Social Worker, Ontario, Canada says:

    Question: Does the cognitive activity have to be related to the exercise being performed.
    Could one be involved in listening to a teaching about brain neurobiology while on the exercise bike?
    Would this have the same beneficial effect?

  25. Tess Richardson, acupuncturist, Tucson, AZ says:

    I am wondering, along with Teresa in an earlier comment, whether increasing brain parameters are the end all and be all. It would be helpful, for example, if the study included cortisol levels. I can feel the sympathetic nervous system kick in when I multi-task during exercise. Is that good? I doubt it. It doesn’t feel right. Perhaps it depends on the purpose: exercise to build up ability to react versus exercise to calm and generate ability to respond.

    Also, I would like the study to look at the effects on people who struggle with the cognitive lessons versus those who do not.

    Scientific research in its effort to look at the smallest piece … so that experiments are replicable …ends up confusing us and asking us to look at the world unrealistically. I agree with Ron in his commentary in the first interview with Dr. Amen: What do we really know here?

  26. Ellen Wood, Author/Speaker, Taos NM says:

    In addition to walking three miles a day, I practice the Five Tibetan Rites of Rejuvenation which gets seven energy centers (not the chakra ones) spinning and affects the body, brain and emotions.
    I also do brain games, meditate twice a day and have cards around the house that say, “What am I thinking right now?” because exercising my brain is more effective when I practice mindfulness.

  27. Silvia, Artist, Germany says:

    When learning a new language, I go for walks and use as much vocabulary relevant to my surroundings – that way, my brain learns that the language has an every day relevance . this improves pronounciation and instant recall. My record for learning a language is 6 weeks in portuguese… If I can´t convince my brain that whatever I am learning is important, I build a fascination for it. That way the brain perceives more fun, releasing more Dopamine and Serotonin, which are both great for the learning process. The brain works best when having fun, so the more fun you make, the smarter you get…
    I love the coloured paper idea. I´m going to try that!

  28. Terésa Stern, LMSW, Somatic Experiencing Practitioner, New York City says:

    I have a mixed reaction to this study. While it’s exciting to be able to increase brain power by essentially multitasking, I find there is also a value in being mindful while doing exercise. In other words, not doing something else while doing the physical activity; just being with yourself, focusing on your body. Listening to music to reinforce the rhythm of the exercise and boost energy. The funny thing is, I used to use time on the elliptical machine to listen to NICABM webinars on my ipod! While I loved the time-saving aspect of it — and it did help me find time to really listen to all the fascinating speakers — I found that I tended not to notice my form, posture, etc. while exercising. And somehow my brain felt more relaxed and clear when I allowed some time to do one thing at a time. It was my chiropractor who first suggested I try exercising without distraction so I could be aware of balance. Anyway, I often feel torn about how to use gym time. And now, this study makes it even more complicated!

  29. Coach Steve Fagan says:

    Yes, currently I am using 2 programs to improve my brain power:

    1. I apply color transparent paper, specifically red and specific shades of green for me, over the words that I read. My comprehension and understanding rate is stronger using this technique. I have learned there is a connection between our brains and direct colors specific to each of us.

    2. I am studying, mostly via CD’s, foreign languages(s), not only to know, but I realize my brain power is stronger and exerting more exercise while learning. I study 30 minutes a day. Focused studying, listening and repeating.

    • Sherry Belman, MA, LMHC, New York says:

      How can we learn about these colors “specific to us”? Thanks.

      • Lynne, Healing Arts, Alberta Canada says:

        The “coloured” paper process is quite simple and is often a great solution for those with learning difficulties especially in reading. It is often used by learning specialists/therapists. The “papers” are actually coloured transparent plastic; think coloured notebook covers. To find out if they will benefit your ease of learning (reading, reading comprehension, math) test yourself under different colours such as red, blue, yellow, green or others and different shades of each. Through your own observation you will be able to see and feel a difference specific for you. Look for ease, flow, clarity and sharper images. Some who have discovered benefits from these colours (not all do) who wear corrective lenses or glasses have then had their colour used in their lenses. It might be good to check in with your eye doctor on this too.
        As to multitasking or one-point mindfulness, on page 68 of Norman Doidge’s book “The Brain That Changes Itself” he references Dr. Merzenich’s research “that paying close attention is essential to long-term plastic change” and “…divided attention doesn’t lead to abiding change in your brain maps.”
        For me, one totally underplayed exercise activity that is immensely beneficial for intense concentration on motor movements, stimulates the brain’s balance system, includes a meditative aspect, lowers stress through the production of Dopamine and Serotonin, preserves and enhances memory is Tai Chi Ch’uan. In Doidge’s book on page 256 he says it hasn’t been studied, by this he means with nerve nets, otherwise there are a multitude of studies speaking to its many benefits. The amount of attention required to progressively deepening details is staggering if you stick with it.

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