Human and other animal studies demonstrate that exercise targets many aspects of brain function and has broad effects on overall brain health. The benefits of exercise have been best defined for learning and memory, protection from neurodegeneration and alleviation of depression, particularly in elderly populations. Exercise increases synaptic plasticity by directly affecting synaptic structure and potentiating synaptic strength, and by strengthening the underlying systems that support plasticity including neurogenesis, metabolism and vascular function. Such exercise-induced structural and functional change has been documented in various brain regions but has been best-studied in the hippocampus the focus of this review. A key mechanism mediating these broad benefits of exercise on the brain is induction of central and peripheral growth factors and growth factor cascades, which instruct downstream structural and functional change. In addition, exercise reduces peripheral risk factors such as diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease, which converge to cause brain dysfunction and neurodegeneration. A common mechanism underlying the central and peripheral effects of exercise might be related to inflammation, which can impair growth factor signaling both systemically and in the brain. Thus, through regulation of growth factors and reduction of peripheral and central risk factors, exercise ensures successful brain function.