Be honest: Chances are, one of the driving factors behind your gym routine is the cut dude staring back at you from the mirror.
But your gym gains go way more than just skin deep. Getting fit can deliver a lean physique – and with that brawn can come better brainpower, too. While your muscles are growing bigger and stronger, and your cardio capacity is increasing, your brain is changing, too.
Here, what’s going inside your brain as you’re building your body.
1. Exercise helps you handle stress
When you do cardio, you boost the production of a special protein in your brain called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF, a recent study published in Cell Biology suggests.
BDNF supports the function and survival of many neurons in your brain, which can help with stress resistance, particularly over the long term, according to Loretta Graziano Breuning, PhD, author of Habits of a Happy Brain.
With better resistance to stress, she notes, your brain operates more efficiently when it comes to cognitive tasks like mood regulation and learning, but also physical ones like respiration, heart rate regulation and immune system function.
“The earlier you’re active, the more likely your brain will be able to handle heightened stress situations later, and support neuronal survival,” says Matthew Capolongo, NASM performance enhancement specialist and a coach at New York-based Professional Athletic Performance Center.
2. Exercise makes your brain perform complex tasks better
Cardiovascular exercise has been shown to improve cognitive function and increase overall brain volume, which helps with how you process information, Capolongo says.
In a study from the Journals of Gerontology, participants ranging from ages 60 to 79 were split into two groups. The first exercised at an intensity level of about 50% of their heart rate reserve, increasing to 70% over a six-month period.
The other did a non-aerobic training program focused on whole-body stretching. The higher-intensity group showed significant increase in brain volume associated with cognitive functions, such as the ability to do complex tasks, problem-solve and pay attention.