Carolinas HealthCare System
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Healthier Body, Healthier Brain

New research provides overwhelming evidence that moderate-to-intense exercise can significantly improve brain function, including reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia and improving memory, acuity and focus.

To learn more about community-based programs that promote active lifestyles and neurowellness for people with Parkinson’s disease, visit

As if you needed another reason to exercise regularly, there is now compelling evidence that physical activity measurably boosts cognitive function, meaning that when you train your body, your brain benefits as well. According to a group of studies released over the past five years, exercise significantly boosts brain function while improving memory and slowing the effects of degenerative conditions such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases.

Researchers have also discovered that regular, moderate exercise can boost the academic performance of teenagers.

Promising new research

Mark A. Hirsch, PhD, a research scientist and faculty member with the Department of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation at Carolinas HealthCare System who has conducted pioneering research on the effects of high-intensity exercise on Parkinson’s disease treatment as well as behavior, said there is a vast amount of research suggesting a correlation between brain health and exercise. The research, which stems from both rodent and human models of exercise, suggests exercise promotes brain health and better health outcomes while lack of activity, and social isolation, may harm brain health in the long run. (1,2)

“We’ve found that exercise – even very brief bouts – enhances the brain’s architecture and function,” Hirsch said, adding that sedentary lifestyles are “prodegenerative to the brain.” (1) Dr. Hirsch, who conducts health outcomes research on the quality of care for patients living with Parkinson’s disease, added that recent research shows exercise and physiotherapy are much more beneficial to the treatment of Parkinson’s than originally believed. (3)

Dr. Hirsch and his colleagues suggest intensive exercise may slow, stop or even reverse the progression of Parkinson’s by harnessing the brain’s ability to repair, rewire or reorganize itself, a process called “neuroplasticity.” (1)

Additionally, numerous studies have revealed regular aerobic exercise may promote brain health in older adults by reducing inflammation and boosting the brain’s defenses against toxins and free radicals.

Moderate exercise, significant benefits

Research presented at the American Stroke Association’s International Stroke Conference in February suggested moderate exercise may cut stroke risk in women by 20 percent and offset the increased risk for women taking postmenopausal hormone therapy. The research suggested moderate exercise – such as brisk walking – has the same positive effects as strenuous exercise for stroke prevention.

More exercise, better grades

There’s also compelling evidence suggesting regular exercise can boost brain function for the younger set. A recent study published in the British Journal of Sport Medicine suggests that just 29 daily minutes of exercise for boys and 18 minutes for girls resulted in better performance in English, math and science. The researchers called for schools to devote more time to physical education for the health, well-being and academic success of teenagers.

To learn more about community-based programs that promote active lifestyles and neurowellness for people with Parkinson’s disease, visit


  1. Hirsch MA, Farley BG. “Exercise, neuroplasticity and Parkinson’s disease.” European Journal of Physical and Rehabilitation Medicine. 2009 Jun;45(2):215-29.
  2. Hirsch MA, Hirsch HVB. “The adaptable brain: Biology of social neuroplasticity.”  Topics in Geriatric Rehabilitation. 2014;30(1):2-7.
  3. van Wegen EEH, Hirsch MA, Huiskamp M, Kwakkel G.  “Harnessing cueing training for neuroplasticity in Parkinson’s disease.” Topics in Geriatric Rehabilitation. 2014;30(1):46-57.