Sport and the brain

Last updated: Jul 25th, 2019

Sport is widely regarded as one of the most enjoyable things you can do in your spare time. Whether you’re mirroring your favourite athlete on the local football pitch or aspiring to become the next Usain Bolt, sport has a unique way of gripping (almost) everyone on the planet.

Travel far and wide and there’s bound to be a trace of a sport you love. Let’s face it, place two hoodies on the ground and you have a set of goal posts. That’s the great thing about sport – its low input for maximum enjoyment.

Although defined by rules and regulations, sport sets us free in a way which can’t be explained in a few sentences. We love it because it inspires people to come together and motivates them to have fun, regardless of skill or ability.

We’re aware of sport’s spell-binding powers to bring people together, but why does it make people feel so great? In this blog, we’ll cover the science behind sport to shed light on why it’s so powerful for the mind, as well as the body.


The benefits of sport


‘’Exercise is the most transformative thing you can do for your brain today.’’


These are the words of Wendy Suzuki, Neuroscientist at New York University. In her Ted talk on the brain-changing benefits of exercise, she stresses the power that exercise and physical activity has on the mind. From improvements to mood, energy and memory, Suzuki (2018) found these improvements to come as a direct result of exercise.

From just a single session of physical activity, immediate improvements to the brain take place. These cause increases to levels of neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin and noradrenaline, which increase your mood right after you exercise or play sport. Attention and reaction times are among the other positive responses your brain makes after physical exercise.

It isn’t just short-term changes either, it’s now proven that long-term physical activity in the form of playing sport or doing exercise can actually increase the volume of the hippocampus within the brain. This is an element within the brain that forms part of the limbic system – responsible for emotions and long-term memory.

So does sport and physical activity help protect the brain? In short, yes. The more you exercise and train the brain, the bigger the hippocampus and pre-frontal cortex become.


Why is this important?


Well, these two areas are the ones that are the most susceptible to degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s or Dementia. Although exercise isn’t a cure for these occurrences within the brain, it’s still scientifically proven that it will slow down the declining effects that the brain experiences with ageing. In other words, it’ll help to slow down the effects of these degenerative diseases.

Therefore, it would be logical to continue playing sport and exercise to decrease the chances of these negative effects occurring, would it not?

Yes, but this is not to say you have to be an Olympian or tri-athlete to experience these changes. Small things like taking the stairs or walking to work will all contribute to reaping the benefits. However, the perfect ‘dosage’ of exercise for your specific genetic make-up is not yet known.


Sport and mental health


With immediate changes in mood, focus and attention, sport and exercise have the capability to help fight mental health issues like depression and anxiety. The link between sport and mental health is so significant that the Royal College of Psychiatrists recognise exercise prescription as a treatment modality for a wide range of mental health conditions.

The science is somewhat simple. After exercise, your body releases chemicals such as endorphins. These natural hormones control pain and pleasure responses in the central nervous system which help to increase mood and bring a sense of ‘euphoria’ within the brain, thus making you happier and more relaxed.

The proof of this is reflected in the many success stories we see within the sporting world. There are well documented cases that show sport has helped people out of difficult times. Most notably, Tyson Fury (former heavyweight boxing champion) uses boxing to battle with his depression and has encouraged others to do the same. After a realisation that he had gained a significant amount of weight and was no longer happy with his life, his turning point was his love for sport and training.


’You need to stimulate the mind, and I think training is the perfect way to do it. Working out, exercising. Whether you’re going to do a lot or a little, you must do something!’’
I’m very, very sure that working out and having a routine in your life is the answer for mental health problems.’’


Tyson Fury


Does professional sport set a bad example?


Despite sport’s ability to improve and combat mental health problems, it’s quite ironic that professional sport sometimes goes against that example. In a recent BBC documentary, A Royal Team Talk: Tackling Mental Health, numerous professional footballers, as well as the Duke of Cambridge and Gareth Southgate, all came together to discuss sport and mental health.

Despite all agreeing that sport is a powerful way in which people can come together to exercise and better themselves, an example should be set from the top level to help tackle the issue further.

In a world that’s now largely influenced by social media, the scrutiny that professional athletes come under is a serious problem; one which causes athletes to suffer from mental health problems. England footballer Danny Rose recently opened up about his struggle with depression. He spoke about how clubs need to take these issues more seriously in order to reduce the stigma that’s attached to these types of illnesses.

Without realising the significance of his actions, Danny started a chain reaction of events which have helped to combat mental health within professional sport.

Gareth Southgate responded to Danny’s actions, describing them as heroic. Gareth’s belief was that his actions should be seen as a strength, not a weakness.

This raised a significant point that sport in a professional capacity has the ability to defeat the stigma of mental illness for the mass population. If athletes like Danny are brave enough to discuss their problems, it’ll encourage others to follow suit.




The benefits of sport on the brain also extend to the educational arena. John J Ratey, author of Spark, studies the link between exercise and brain performance. His passion lies within spreading this message to schools all over the world and the evidence to support his argument is outstanding. He states that exercise can be used as a self-medication for attention deficit disorder and that it can be used as both a treatment and stimulant modality within schools.

He uses the case study of Naperville to support his findings. Over 20 years, Naperville had developed a PE programme that was fitness-based. It required students to exercise for 45 minutes every day. This not only caused a huge fall in the amount of overweight children in the region, but it led to some amazing educational improvements.

For example, in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), the Naperville district scored #1 in science and #6 in maths, which were hugely improved scores from the averages taken in previous years.

He also discovered that exercise could help tackle poor behaviour in young students. This realisation came from visiting an under-privileged school that was known for bad behaviour. However, after the school set up circuit training for students, things began to change. Using whatever pieces of equipment they could find (skipping ropes etc.), 4th to 8th graders were made to exercise once a day for 30 minutes. The results were astonishing.

The school saw an 83% fall in discipline problems within just three months. John calculated that this was down to increased levels of mood and focus that came as a result of their morning exercise routines. The chemical reactions that took place within the brain allowed for attention spans to be improved, which later caused improved behaviour and a stronger academic performance during school hours.


Exercise types and the brain


Okay, so it appears that science has proved its point. It’s clear that sport and exercise offer proven benefits to the brain and the advantages are significant. But what types of exercise are the most beneficial?

Aerobic exercise (also known as cardio) raises your heart rate and increases blood flow to the brain. This increased heart rate leads to deeper and more frequent breathing, which subsequently pumps more oxygen into the brain. This process leads to neurogenesis (the production of neurons) in areas of the brain which control memory and thinking. As mentioned previously, this helps to combat the effects of dementia as well as increase your mood, focus and attention span.

It’s therefore fair to state that adult hippocampal neurogenesis quantifies brain health (Aimone et al, 2014), which comes as a direct result of exercise.


So what should you take from this blog? Well, science proves that exercise is incredibly effective and important in keeping the brain happy. This means that if you aren’t currently doing enough to stimulate your mind, you must ask yourself why…