Have you ever had one of those days when you just can’t seem to focus? Your thoughts are ricocheting all over the place and despite every attempt to bear down and concentrate, even the most minor distractions steal your attention and veer you off on irrelevant tangents. 


Then someone says something or asks you a question and you kind of snap back to the present and embarrassingly have to respond, “Wait… what??? Oh, sorry I wasn’t paying attention.”


I had one of those days yesterday. Ironically, my priority was to compose a draft of this essay. I got virtually nothing done. What little I was able to accomplish was only done by a herculean exertion of mental discipline, and only after I had gotten my workout done.


When I last reached out, I outlined a number of the miraculous cognitive benefits of exercise. Because I used to be plagued with far too many days like I scuffled through yesterday, I’d like to lead off this discussion by highlighting how exercise can improve our ability to focus. 


I’ve commented in previous posts about possible societal causes for this, but suffice to say that nearly constant electronic stimulation doesn’t help. Whatever the causes for our pervasive modern attention deficit disorder, most of us will struggle at times to pay attention and remain focused. That can impede performance at work and school, with potentially adverse long-term results.


The good news is that exercise can help. Quite a bit in fact!


There is an abundance of published research to support this. So much so, that there’s virtually no debate or controversy surrounding the subject, which is highly unusual in the world of psychology, exercise science and nutrition. Much of the research has been conducted using children and adults who struggle with Attention Deficit Disorder as subjects.


Many of these studies and investigations have looked at the effect of acute exercise on attention. By that they mean how does a single session of exercise, rather than the long term practice of regular exercise, impact our attention?


The explanation for how exercise benefits the brain, and by extension our powers of concentration and focus, is rather complex. I’ll do my best to summarize…


Exercise impacts our brains structurally and chemically. 


The structural enhancements include the creation of new brain cells, a process known as neurogenesis. It also improves connections between existing brain cells, called synapses. Exercising also extends the life of our existing brain cells. In short, by exercising we create new neurons, improve the communication between the ones we already have, and increase their lifespan.


These structural changes can actually increase the size and density of particular areas of the brain. Areas such as the hippocampus, where much of our memory resides, and the prefrontal cortex, an area just behind our eyes that governs our executive function skills, will measurably grow in size. The prefrontal cortex is very involved in our ability to filter distractions and focus.


Exercise also induces the secretion of a whole soup of beneficial chemicals known as neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are so called because they aid in the transmission of nerve signals from one neuron or brain cell to the next across synaptic gaps. Generally, having more connections and more neurotransmitters between them is a good thing.


You may have heard of some of these from mainstream media: dopamine, serotonin, and acetylcholine. At risk of oversimplifying what these neurotransmitters actually do: dopamine induces feelings of happiness; serotonin will create a sense of peace-of-mind; and acetylcholine is tied to learning.


All of them are involved in our ability to concentrate, but dopamine in particular works to heighten our attention and help us to focus.


Exercising will cause your brain to secrete dopamine. That’s one of the reasons we often feel good after a workout or run. Because it heightens our attention and awareness, training before you plan to study or work on an important project can really promote better powers of concentration.


But what form or exercise is most effective? And how much should we do? 


There’s really good news here! Both aerobic exercise, more popularly known as “cardio”, and resistance training, or strength training, have been shown to work well. Similarly, researchers have shown positive results with varying degrees of volume and intensity. That means even light to moderate levels of effort are beneficial. Only very long and very intense exercise, like marathon running, have demonstrated questionable results. Those findings are most likely due to the magnified fatigue from the pronounced exertion.


Even more encouraging, “as exercise is repeated in a regular fashion over time, the brain changes… will not only recur on a regular basis, but will also likely engage a variety of feedback, compensatory, and long-term, plasticity-based brain mechanisms.” Meaning that, like the changes that we see to our muscles and strength from a habit of regular training, incremental changes and improvements in our ability to pay attention and focus that are produced by individual bouts of exercise will compound in a beneficial way by permanently changing our brain structure and chemistry to progressively increase our powers of concentration over time.


When you next find yourself distracted and struggling to focus and you have some important work that you need to complete, might I suggest taking 15-20 minutes and getting some exercise? Go for a brisk walk, or move some weights around, or whatever your favorite form of exercise happens to be. Do something moderately vigorous with your body to sharpen your mind. It worked for me while writing this piece. It was only after I broke away from the task and completed my workout that I was able to make any progress.


We’ll return to the subject of the miraculous cognitive benefits of exercise in my upcoming post by looking at how it can help us to think more creatively. Look for that under the title, “The Original Renaissance Man Was the Strongest Man In Florence”. 


I hope you found this interesting and useful! If so, please help us to reach more people by sharing it with friends and family.


And if there’s anything Julie or I can do to help you get in a groove and begin exercising your body and mind regularly, please reach out.


Thanks so much for your support!


Be strong and have fun!


Works cited:

  1. Basso, JC; Suzuki, WA. The Effects of Acute Exercise on Mood, Cognition, Neurophysiology, and Neurochemical Pathways: A Review. Brain Plasticity, vol. 2, no. 2, pp. 127-152, 2017
  2. Chang YK , et al. The Effects of Acute Exercise on Cognitive Performance: A Meta-analysis. Brain Res. 145387–101.
  3. Chang, YK, et al. Effect of Acute Exercise on Executive Function in Children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Archives of Clinical Neuropsychology, Volume 27, Issue 2, March 2012, Pages 225–237, 2012.
  4. Voss MW , et al. Bridging animal and human models of exercise-induced brain plasticity. Trends Cogn Sci. 2013;17(10):525–44.
  5. Wigal, S, et al. Exercise: Applications to Childhood ADHD. Journal of Attention Disorders, vol 17, no 4, pp: 279-290, 2013.


Paul Reilly

Paul is the Owner and Founder of MidStrong. He created MidStrong in 2017 to train men and women in midlife who are busy with work and family to build muscle and burn fat so they can look and feel better than they did in their 20’s. MidStrong is making Functional Fitness training safe and fun, and inclusive. He and his wife, Julie also own and operate MidStrong locally, their bricks and mortar business, previously called ACCELERATED Strength & Balance. It is a boutique fitness center specializing in training folks in and around Westborough through the challenges of midlife for more than five years.