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You know exercise reduces your risk of disease and can help you lose weight. But did you know it can improve your memory and even grow your brain size?

When most of us think of exercise and its benefits, we usually think of the physical changes it can make to our body. But staying active and hitting the gym, pool or pavement can do more than expose your hidden six pack. Science has shown that exercise has huge benefits for the brain and can improve both cognitive and mental health.

Exercise assists in regulating chemicals and hormones. It contributes to improved sleep, better moods, memory and concentration. It’s also a proven effective treatment for depression and can even make your brain grow larger. 

Here are a few ways exercise can do more than just make you sweat.

1. It makes you happy 

Have you ever been for a run after a stressful day at work? Chances are you felt better afterwards. In fact, a 2011 study by the American Psychological Association found that just five minutes of physical activity was enough to reduce stress and noticeably improve a person’s mood. 

Another study published in Psychological Reports in 2005 showed that exercise could be an effective treatment for depression – just 10 weeks on a “rigorous exercise” program for three to five days per week improved depressive symptoms among the participants by as much as 50 per cent. This may be because exercise releases happy hormones such as endorphins, serotonin and noradrenalin. Vigorous physical activity also gives you a free shot of dopamine, which is the same chemical you feel when you fall in love or win the lottery. 

2. It improves your focus 

Numerous studies have shown how physical activity can reduce your risk of neurological diseases and protect the brain from wear and tear that comes with aging. But busy lawyers may be more interested to know that just 30 minutes of moderate- to high-intensity exercise can immediately improve your focus, as demonstrated by an extensive literature review published in Brain Plasticity in 2017. 

Don’t stress if you don’t have time for a daily run. Most studies agree that exercising at least once a week improves attention, executive function, and planning. In other words, any billable time lost during your midday gym session will be gained back via working efficiency at your desk.

3. It boosts your memory.

You know exercise can help you lose weight, but did you also know it melts away the brain fog that can come with age? Researchers at the University of British Columbia in 2014 showed that exercise can protect memory and thinking skills. These are two of the few brain processes we can affect or improve on in adulthood. 

4. It helps your brain grow.

“Neurogenesis” is brain’s ability to generate new cells and grow. There are only a few ways humans can encourage this cell growth as we get older – and exercise is one of them. 

While scientists have conducted plenty of neurogenesis studies on mice, it was not until researchers from Western Sydney University teamed up with the University of Manchester in 2017 to investigate the direct effect exercise could have on human brains. The team reviewed brain scans of 737 people before and after aerobic exercise and discovered that exercise caused the left side of the hippocampus to actually grow in size – much like a leg muscle would after training on heavy squats. The study’s author, psychiatrist Joseph Firth, was most excited by how this discovery showed that exercise could prevent age-related decline by reducing deterioration of the brain.

“In other words, exercise can be seen as a maintenance program for the brain,” he said.