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Huge thanks to Coach Hilary for this!

As some of you may know, my coaching gig at Big Horn is a part-time job. When I’m not screaming at you guys to move faster and lift heavier (very sweetly, of course), I am working as a speech-language pathologist in a private practice.

I specialize in cognitive rehabilitation with a focus on treating patients with concussions, aka mild traumatic brain injuries. (Yes, concussions and mild traumatic brain injuries are the same thing, but that’s another topic for another day!) I work on rehabilitating cognitive functioning in areas such as memory, attention, and executive functioning skills (e.g., planning, time management, etc.) so that my patients can return to work and their daily lives as soon as possible.

After that semi-long intro paragraph, you’re probably wondering what in the world this might have to do with CrossFit, right? More than you think actually!

Because of my job, I’ve studied the anatomy and physiology of the brain a lot, and it is such a remarkable organ! In a very simplified nutshell, the brain uses energy to help regulate three things: physical, emotional, and cognitive functioning.

The physical functioning is obvious, given that we all sweat next to each other at BHCF. And I bet you “feel better” when you exercise, which can be your proof of the positive impact of exercise on emotional functioning.

When you exercise, your body releases chemicals called endorphins. The movie Legally Blonde tells us that “endorphins make you happy, and happy people just don’t shoot their husbands!” While this is hopefully true even without endorphins, additional results include decreased stress and anxiety, improved quality of sleep, and increased self-esteem.

Physical exercise can also have a positive impact on our cognition. The research on this topic is fairly recent and the effects of physical exercise for cognition are still being studied, but there is some promising information out there. In two longitudinal studies (1,2) for healthy adults, researchers have shown a positive correlation between good cardiovascular fitness and high performance on cognitive measures.

There are currently three hypotheses for this relationship between exercise and improved cognitive functioning, but I am going to focus on the one that has the most scientific evidence so far.

There is a chemical called brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) that is released during exercise. BDNF has been shown to help create new neurons (the tiny cells that help to carry messages from the brain to other parts of your body), protect the neurons, and connect them to each other neurons for more efficient functioning.

A study of healthy college students compared values of BDNF and performance on cognitive tests after light exercise (think 500m row at 50% exertion) and moderate-heavy exercise (think Fran). They found that the “higher exercise intensity may be necessary to produce changes in BDNF.”3 So, the more challenging the workout is from a cardiovascular standpoint, the more BDNF is released.

In summary, aerobic exercise has the capacity to promote changes in our brains, not only improving our emotional functioning, but helping to maintain or improve our cognitive functioning as well. Areas that are specifically affected are those that control attention, memory, executive functioning, and problem solving. Every time you step into the gym and get your heart rate elevated, you are working on not just your physical health, but your emotional and cognitive functioning, too. I’m sure you already realized that working out at BHCF helps your overall well-being, but now you have scientific proof!

Thanks for reading and indulging my nerdy side! See you guys at the gym!


1BarnesDE, Yaffe K, SatarianoWA, Tager IB. Longitudinal study of cardiorespiratory fitness and cognitive function in healthy older adults. J Am Geriatr Soc. 2003;51:549–465.
2Weuve J, Kang JH,Manson JE, BretelerMM,Ware JH, Grodstein F. Physical activity, including walking, and cognitive function in older women. JAMA. 2004;292(12):1454–1461.
3Ferris LT, Williams JS, Shen CL. The effect of acute exercise on serum brain-derived neurotrophic factor levels and cognitive function. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2007;39(4):728–734
  • Coach Brian

    Wow, Hilary, what an excellent article! Inspired some “cognitive function” in my brain, for sure!