Dementia brain scan: This is how exercise can boost your brain power

We all know exercise is good for our physical health, and in recent years more people have discovered how movement can have a transformative effect on our mental health, too. What is less well known is how physical fitness can boost your brain power.

But a new study commissioned by Asics found that exercise can significantly improve cognitive function.

Professor Brendon Stubbs invited 77 competitive athletes from around the world who had not previously exercised to take part in a four-month training programme.

Under the guidance of a trainer, the participants—specialists in games such as chess, mahjong, and e-sports—engaged in medium-impact cardio and strength-training sessions, working up to 150 minutes of activity per week.

A camera crew tracked down four of the players for the Mind Games documentary, The Experiment.

says Stubbs, who measured the players’ problem-solving skills, short-term memory and executive function, which means the ability to juggle task prioritization.

Rather, improvements were seen in their gameplay. “On average people’s national rankings have gone up 50% and international rankings have gone up 75%,” he says.

So if these professional gamers can show significant growth, can exercise help everyone hone their mental skills?

Strengthening of gray matter

“There are many well-recognized benefits of exercise on the brain, ranging from reducing stress and anxiety, to improving energy, attention and focus, to strengthening memory and reducing brain aging and associated neurodegenerative conditions,” says Dr. Emer McSweeney, CEO and consultant. Neuroradiologist at Re:Cognition Health (

“Physical exercise has also been shown to modulate glucose metabolism in the brain which provides fuel for physiological brain function and neurotransmitter generation.”

Scientists don’t know for sure why exercise and cognition are linked, but brain scan studies suggest that when the heart rate rises, new neural pathways form that connect areas of the brain associated with things like problem-solving, memory, and emotion.

“When you exercise, you get new pathways that are developed and strengthened,” says Stubbs. “Just like your muscles, the more you use these pathways, the stronger they become in the short term. And in the long run, the more these areas get, too.”

In addition, exercise stimulates the production of chemicals like BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) and IGF (insulin growth factor), he explains. “These are the factors that stimulate new cell growth in areas of the brain, and they really respond to muscle contraction, so they’re going to help enrich the brain in a really positive way, to kind of oil those connections.”

Long term links

So, staying fit may make you less likely to lose your car keys or stall on a daily basis, but can it help prevent cognitive decline over your lifetime?

“Exercise is thought to stimulate the growth and survival of brain cells, which may help reduce the risk of dementia,” says McSweeney.

“Exercise also helps promote sleep, which is essential for all aspects of the body including reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and helping to manage stress, anxiety, and other mental health conditions.”

Your mental exercise plan

If, like the guys in the Asics study, you’re starting from scratch on your fitness journey, there’s no need to immediately sign up for a marathon training or HIIT class.

“Do something you enjoy, because you’re more likely to start with it and more likely to go and do it again,” says Stubbs. Whether it’s walking, jogging, dancing, swimming, fitness classes or a one-on-one session at the gym – mix it up and see what works for you.

“Then, once you get into the chain of activities, keep building and adding variety. Go with friends, go outdoors and experiment and enjoy it all.”

If you’ve already got yourself into a regular cardio or strength training routine, try combining the two for best results.

“[Participants] Gradually increase to 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity per week, including two days of vigorous activity. This is the ideal scenario for all people,” Stubbs advises.

But the rate at which people progress to this will vary between individuals. It is important to remember that some is better than none, and more is better than some.”

For times when you want a quick boost in brain power, like an important exam or job interview, a moderate workout that ends 20 minutes before a big event is best.

“It helps initially excite the nervous system, and then also calm it down afterwards,” says Stubbs. “It’s a really good thing to do immediately beforehand, to help you focus, feel more calm about yourself, and perform better.”

Mind Games – The Experience is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.

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