Physical exercise as a means of improving cognitive functions in healthy and clinical populations

15 Oct. 2022
Physical exercise as a means of improving cognitive functions in healthy and clinical populations

It is widely accepted that physical exercise benefits the human cognitive functions (Pascoe et al., 2020) and is now used as a measure to prevent relapse in addictive behaviors, leading over the past decades to increase scientific interest in the role of engaging in the treatment of people addicted to psychoactive substances (e.g. cocaine, marijuana, alcohol, heroin, inhaled drugs, LSD, and ecstasy) (Abrandes & Blevins, 2019). Brandon et al., 2007). On the one hand, physical exercise has become the most effective and successful way to improve the quality of life by bringing benefits to human behavior, including significant increases in memory, attention, information processing speed and the executive functions of the brain. Physical exercise induces structural and functional changes in the brain (a quality known as neuroplasticity or brain plasticity) creating the necessary conditions for enormous biological and psychological benefits in healthy and clinical populations. An impressively growing literature has shown that regular physical exercise improves cognitive function, particularly executive impairments, both acute and long-term (Mandolesi et al., 2018). By improving the cognitive function, exercise can play an important role in facilitating learning based on new skills, to help prevent relapse or even prevent thoughts and actions that lead to substance-seeking behavior (Abrandes & Blevins, 2019).

Addiction to psychoactive substances is characterized as a substance use disorder (SUD) and has been identified as one of the most serious public health problems of the modern world. The SUD is directly related to the deregulation of the sensitivity of the brain’s reward nervous system (ventral tegmental area, nucleus accumbens, prefrontal cortex) and the abnormal dopamine release. Studies (e.g., Costa et al., 2019, Goldstein & Volkow, 2011) showed that people with SUD have a reduced activity of the pre-frontal cortex of the brain, which may be due to the decrease in the number of dopamine receptors and the abnormal activation rate of dopaminergic neurons (Volkow et al., 2009). These changes in the brain's neural reward network may favor specific seeking behaviors of finding, intaking and uncontrolled consumption of addictive psychoactive substances. Similarly, the incomplete development of the prefrontal cortex combined with a reduced ability to control impulsive decisions has been proposed as an explanation for the susceptibility of adolescents and young adults to drug abuse, underlining the importance of preventing the use of addictive psychoactive substances during this period of brain development (Winters & Arria, 2011).

It is common knowledge that most of the modern drug treatment programs require effective and innovative treatments that aim to restore the normal functioning of the brain and especially of the areas that have been affected by the use of psychoactive substance. Therapies now apply multidisciplinary approaches combining the use of medicines, social care, physical exercise, and cognitive behavioral therapy. Not a few research findings have shown that physical exercise can be a useful non-medical treatment as it shares the same neural network involved in the initial and late stages of the addiction process (Smith & Lynch, 2012). The benefits of physical exercise on cognitive function and brain structure in humans are well documented in the scientific literature (Baek, 2016). All types of physical activity, in particular aerobic exercise, are linked to improvements in the executive functions and the increase in volume and activity of the grey matter in areas of the brain's prefrontal cortex (Erickson & Kramer, 2009).

It is now understood that conscious choices to engage in physical exercise can form motivating factors, especially for young people, to follow a different way of seeking pleasure, by activating the brains reward neural network through exercise rather than through use of addictive psychoactive substances which most of the time create serious health problems that can lead to death. Human involvement in physical activity can be only beneficial, while the use of addictive psychoactive substances only harmful.

Professor Antonios K. Travlos
Department of Sports Organization and Management, School of Human Movement and Quality of Life University of Peloponnese


Abrantes, A. M., & Blevins, C. E. (2019). Exercise in the context of substance use treatment: key issues and future directions. Current Opinion in Psychology, 30, 103-108.

Aharonovich, E., Nunes, E., & Hasin, D. (2003). Cognitive impairment, retention and abstinence among cocaine abusers in cognitive-behavioral treatment. Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 71(2), 207-211.

Baek, S. S. (2016). Role of exercise on the brain. Journal of Exercise Rehabilitation, 12(5), 380.

Brandon, T. H., Vidrine, J. I., & Litvin, E. B. (2007). Relapse and relapse prevention. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 3, 257-284.