While the relationship between increased physical activity and cognitive ability has been conjectured for centuries, only recently have the mechanisms underlying this relationship began to emerge. Convergent evidence suggests that physical activity offers an affordable and effective method to improve cognitive function in all ages, particularly the elderly who are most vulnerable to neurodegenerative disorders. In addition to improving cardiac and immune function, physical activity alters trophic factor signaling and, in turn, neuronal function and structure in areas critical for cognition. Sustained exercise plays a role in modulating anti-inflammatory effects and may play a role in preserving cognitive function in aging and neuropathological conditions. Moreover, recent evidence suggests that myokines released by exercising muscles affect the expression of brain-derived neurotrophic factor synthesis in the dentate gyrus of the hippocampus, a finding that could lead to the identification of new and therapeutically important mediating factors. Given the growing number of individuals with cognitive impairments worldwide, a better understanding of how these factors contribute to cognition is imperative, and constitutes an important first step toward developing non-pharmacological therapeutic strategies to improve cognition in vulnerable populations.