How Exercise Can Impact Your Decision Making

Tracy Smith, LPC, NCC, ACS
October 17, 2019

It is scientifically proven and well documented that exercising is beneficial to one’s physical health, mental health, and emotional well-being. Exercise can help an individual to stay fit, to increase muscle tone, and to develop physical stamina. It can help one to sculpt their body and to improve confidence and self-esteem. From a mental health perspective, exercise can help a person to reduce stress through physical activity, which also enhances emotional well being.


So, we know that exercise can help a person to look and feel good, but what about cognitive or intellectual functioning? Can exercise actually help to enhance a person’s mental and intellectual capabilities? If so, how does this pertain to professional athletes? Can their decision making during a game be impacted by the amount and type of exercise that they have engaged in?

Research shows that exercise can indeed have an impact on a person’s cognitive and executive functioning, which includes decision making abilities. Constant periods of aerobic exercise can trigger changes and enhancements in certain brain structures and pathways that are linked with memory and cognitive control.

Exercise activates the release of the body’s hormones, which can impact learning, attention, and perception. When an individual exercises, their information processing, memory functioning, and focus are all enhanced, helping people to make better, well-thought out decisions.

Executive functioning in the brain can be positively impacted by exercise and movement, which can further enhance cognitive skills, such as learning and memory. Cardiovascular exercise triggers the release of brain chemicals that improve recall, problem solving, and decision making. 

Exercise develops and fosters brain power and cognitive functioning. Increased blood flow through the brain can help a person to make better decisions. Exercising in the morning has been shown to help a person improve their decision making throughout the day. Sedentary behavior is linked with lower cognitive functioning, while short bursts of movement and exercise throughout the day can improve executive functioning.

Aerobic exercise can have a fleeting impact on an individual’s cognition after just one workout. Transitory effects of exercise on cognition can include enhancement in executive functioning, including problem-solving, information processing, and decision making. Aerobic exercise that occurs consistently for extended periods of time has an even greater impact. Regular aerobic exercise workouts have positive, long-term effects on specific cognitive functions, including memory, cognitive flexibility, and attention. 

Aerobic exercise can train parts of the brain that help individuals to focus. Elderly and older individuals can experience deterioration in their brain functioning, including cognitive declines in memory loss and dementia. Exercise can enhance brain function by delaying or warding off memory decline associated with advanced age. Additionally, exercise can help older people make better decisions.

Interestingly enough, excessive exercise and training can have the opposite effect on a person’s decision making capabilities. Extreme exercise can cause fatigue in the brain, which actually impairs a person’s ability to make decisions. When the brain is in a tired state, people cannot make good decisions. Individuals experience a slower response time and the part of the brain vital to decision making can actually show reduced activity. It is important for individuals to monitor fatigue and excessive exercise to prevent bad decision making. 

So, exercising is important to cognitive and higher order functioning, but the amount and type of exercise is also important. A person who engages in extreme exercise regimens ends up putting more stress on their brain, causing fatigue and poor decision making. Maintaining a healthy aerobic regimen is important to enhancing cognitive functioning.

Decision making can either be negatively or positively impacted in professional athletes. Perhaps those who make foolish plays or who are seemingly “off” either didn’t exercise enough, or exercised too much.

Tracy Smith, LPC, NCC, ACS

Tracy is a Licensed Professional Counselor and is a clinical supervisor for the Community YMCA, Counseling & Social Services branch. Tracy has over 12 years of experience working in many settings including partial care hospitalization and intensive outpatient programs, community agencies, group practice, and school-based programs. Tracy works with clients of all ages, but especially enjoys working with the adolescents. Tracy  facilitates groups using art therapy, sand play and psychodrama.

More For You