Exercise and your brain: The mental health benefits of exercise

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Regular exercise is known to have many positive effects on the body. It can strengthen the heart, muscles, and bones and help prevent certain diseases.

A benefit often overlooked is the positive impact that physical activity has on your mental health.

Many people could benefit from exercise’s positive effects on their mental health, given the worldwide high rate of depression and anxiety.

This article will discuss the relationship between exercise and various mental health conditions.

What does exercise do to the brain?

Although exercise may appear simple, it is actually a complex chemical cascade that takes place inside your body every time you run, go to the gym or do any other type of physical activity.

This chemical cascade has many positive effects on the brain ( 1).

Neurotransmitters are released

You begin to exercise, and depending on how intense you are, neurotransmitters, which are important chemical messengers, are released throughout the nervous system.

Endorphins, endocannabinoids

Endorphins are the most commonly thought of neurotransmitters in relation to exercise. When you exercise, endocannabinoids, a lesser-known neurotransmitter, also plays an important role.

Exercise can increase endorphin levels and reduce pain.

Recent research has shown that endorphins, endocannabinoids and exercise may be responsible for the euphoric feelings you feel after a hard workout.

Particularly, the Endocannabinoids are a group neurotransmitters thought to be responsible “runner’s high” — that feeling of calm euphoria after a hard workout ( 3Trusted source).


Dopamine is another important neurotransmitter related to exercise.

Dopamine is a key component of your pleasure. Dopamine is also responsible for many other body processes, including the regulation of heart beat, sleep cycles and moods, motivation, learning, pain processing, and working memory ( 45Trusted Source).

There is not enough data to determine which exercise stimulates the most dopamine release. More research is needed.

Promotes neuroplasticity

Neuroplasticity refers to the ability of your brain or nervous system to alter their activity in response ( 6 ).

This is a crucial part of learning new skills and activities.

Research suggests that exercise may promote neuroplasticity through the increase in certain signaling factors ( 7Trusted Source8Trusted Source).

Increases oxygen supply to brain

Your brain gets more oxygen when your heart beats faster during exercise.

The blood vessels in your brain are affected, leading to potential improvements in executive functions. This includes flexible thinking and working memory ( 9Trusted source).

Researchers examined the effects of exercise on blood flow to cerebrum in a 2021 study that included 48 people with mild cognitive impairment. This is the largest brain part and is responsible for higher cognitive function, sensory impulses and motor activity ( 10Trusted Source11Trusted Source).

The researchers found that moderate to vigorous exercise for a year increases cerebral blood flow, and reduces the chance of cognitive decline.

Regular physical activity can increase blood flow to your brain’s most important areas, thereby reducing the risk of cognitive decline conditions like stroke ( 12Trusted Source13Trusted Source).

What mental health benefits does exercise bring?

Regular exercise is associated with many mental health benefits.

These are some of the most popular benefits that research supports.

Can relieve stress

Regular exercise can be a powerful stress reliever, so it may not surprise you.

This may be something you have personally experienced. Perhaps you have felt some relief after a stressful day at work.

Exercise may reduce stress levels by decreasing stress-related hormones like cortisol, adrenaline, and testosterone ( 14Trusted source15Trusted source16Trusted source).

Regular exercise was also shown to be beneficial in animal studies ( 14Trusted Source).

Exercise can help you not only manage stress but also prevent it from happening in the first place.

In 2015, a study of young men who were highly trained and sedentary found that they were more resilient to acute stressors when they did 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise ( 17Trusted source).

Exercise may help you deal with stressors better, which could lead to a higher quality of your life.

This may increase self-confidence

Exercise is closely associated with improved self-image and self-confidence, which are both important mental health benefits.

Numerous studies have shown that regular exercise can improve body image as well as self-compassion. ( 18 19, 20TrustedSource).

Being physically active can help you feel better about yourself and boost your self-esteem.

It can improve mood

Another positive effect of exercise on mental health is its ability to improve your mood.

Numerous studies have shown that regular exercise is associated with positive mood and decreased negative thoughts ( 3Trusted source21Trusted source).

If you feel down, you might be just one exercise away from a more positive outlook.

Better sleep can be promoted

A key factor in maintaining your mental health is your sleep quality at night.

While there are many factors that affect your quality of sleep , it seems like the most important factor is your level of physical activity.

An analysis of 34 studies found that all types of exercise can improve sleep quality and duration ( 22Trusted source).

Exercise may also improve sleep onset latency (the time it takes to fall asleep) ( 23Trusted source).

Regular exercise, regardless of type, can be a great way to get quality sleep.

May improve memory and thinking

Exercise may have positive effects on your mental health and can also improve your memory and thinking.

Studies show that regular exercise can improve mental clarity and increase working memory as well as attention span ( 24Trusted Source25Trusted Source).

Exercise has also been shown to reduce cognitive decline in people over 50 ( 26Trusted Source27Trusted Source).

Regular exercise is good for your mental health. However, it can also be beneficial in relieving symptoms of certain mental conditions. We will discuss these issues below.

Exercise and depression

Depression is a very common mental illness worldwide. Around 5% of the adult population has it ( 28Trusted source).

The main symptoms of this condition are ( 28Trusted source):

  • Depressed mood
  • Loss of interest in once pleasurable activities
  • Low self-worth
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Suicide thoughts

Exercise has been shown repeatedly to reduce depression symptoms. The most important benefits are higher self-esteem and greater life satisfaction ( 29Trusted source).

A 2018 review of research found that aerobic exercise can be antidepressant ( 30Trusted Source).

Exercise can reduce depression by increasing brain-derived neural factor. This is an important protein found in the brain that’s responsible learning and cell growth. 31Trusted source32Trusted source

Although aerobic exercise has been proven to reduce depression symptoms, it is not the only type of exercise that can be helpful. Running, playing basketball, or lifting weights are all good options.

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