Aerobic exercise promotes adult neurogenesis by increasing the production of neurotrophic factors (compounds that promote growth or survival of neurons), such as brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1), and vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF). Exercise-induced neurogenesis in the hippocampus is associated with measurable improvements in spatial memory.
Consistent aerobic exercise over a period of several months induces marked clinically significant improvements in executive function (i.e., the “cognitive control” of behavior) and increased gray matter volume in multiple brain regions, particularly those that give rise to cognitive control.
The brain structures that show the greatest improvements in gray matter volume in response to aerobic exercise are the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus; moderate improvements are seen in the anterior cingulate cortex, parietal cortex, cerebellum, caudate nucleus, and nucleus accumbens.
Higher physical fitness scores (measured by VO2 max) are associated with better executive function, faster processing speed, and greater volume of the hippocampus, caudate nucleus, and nucleus accumbens.