A woman lies on her back with her legs over her head.

New clues are revealing why exercise can keep the brain healthy

Scientists are learning how muscles in motion can improve cognition and shield against diseases like Alzheimer's, paving the way for new treatments.

An 83-year-old woman practices yoga. “The body of a 20-year-old is inherently different from the body of a 70-year-old. And somehow, something about exercise can cause a benefit in all these contexts,” says Saul Villeda, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco.
Photograph by Fritz Hoffman, Nat Geo Image Collection

In the thick of graduate studies at the University of Chicago, Constanza Cortes Rodriguez remembers feeling burnt out. “Nothing was working in the lab, and I was very stressed,” Rodriguez says. That’s when she joined the school’s Ballroom and Latin Dance Association and fell in love with salsa and bachata. She soon found herself practicing nine or more hours a week, flawlessly executing moves on three-inch heels.

Dancing siphoned hours away from her research, and yet Rodriguez, who’s now a neurobiologist at the University of Alabama, quickly realized that it was making her a better scientist. “The time I did spend in [the] lab was so much more efficient; I could feel myself thinking differently and remembering things better.”

Her experience showcases an emerging trend in our understanding of cognitive health: Molecules made by muscles in motion can influence the structure and health of the brain. Scientists used to think that the brain controlled the body, and while the body transmitted signals of sensation back to the brain, the brain was isolated and in charge. But research in the last few years has flipped that notion on its head.

Read This Next

Do spiders dream? A new study suggests they do.
Why monkeypox cases are still rising at such an alarming rate
Thunderstorms are moving East with climate change

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet