How Exercise Affects Your Brain

Wave after wave of studies, papers, articles and hypothesis exploring the links between mental and physical fitness are emerging from labs and universities all over the world. All this research will hopefully give us even more motivation to go get fit.

Brock Armstrong
7-minute read
Episode #353

You have probably heard people say something along the lines of “your brain is like a muscle.” That comparison certainly supports the brain training industry (by that I mean school) and keeps millions of youth around the world sitting at desks, doing math problems, writing essays, and dissecting unsuspecting amphibians - but is it true?

Interestingly, the brain-as-a-muscle comparison isn’t all that accurate. If you want to build your glutes, you have to flex your glutes but when it comes to your brain, a more coincidental approach is more accurate. Getting busy working your glutes will also directly benefit your grey matter. Yes, exercising your butt will make you smarter!

Exercise affects the brain in many ways. It increases heart rate, which pumps more oxygen to the brain. It aids the release of hormones which provide an excellent environment for the growth of brain cells. Exercise also promotes brain plasticity by stimulating growth of new connections between cells in many important cortical areas of the brain. Research from UCLA even demonstrated that exercise increased growth factors in the brain which makes it easier for the brain to grow new neuronal connections.

From a more feel-good perspective, the same antidepressant-like effects associated with the "runner's high" has been correlated with a drop in stress hormones. A study from Stockholm showed that the antidepressant effect of running was also associated with more cell growth in the hippocampus, an area of the brain responsible for learning and memory. The study went as far as to say “Thus, suppression of cell proliferation in the hippocampus could constitute one of the mechanisms that underlie depression, and physical activity might be an efficient antidepressant.”

Some Examples

Scientists are continuing to showing that everything from the “runner’s high” to the “yogi’s tranquility” can have profound effects on your brain. Here are just a few examples. 

1. Exercise Boosts Memory

The part of the brain that responds strongly to aerobic exercise is called the hippocampus. Since the hippocampus is at the core of the brain’s learning and memory systems, this finding partly explains the memory-boosting effects of improved cardiovascular fitness.

2. Exercise Increases Concentration

Exercise can actually help you focus and stay on task longer. During a study in Holland, they interspersed lectures with 20-minute long aerobics-style workouts and found that it improved the attention spans of the students. Then a large randomised controlled trial in the US looked at the effects of daily sports classes which spanned the entire school year. The students got fitter but they also became better at multitasking, ignoring distractions, and processing complex information.

3. Exercise Improves Mental Health

We’ve all heard of (or experienced) the runner’s high – that feeling of happiness and clarity that often follows exercise – well, it is real. It has even been observed in mice and evidence points to a pleasurable and pain-killing firing of the endocannabinoid system (also known as the psychoactive receptor for cannabis).

Science is also increasingly backing the yogi’s claim of the “relaxation response”. A 2010 study titled Stress reduction correlates with structural changes in the amygdala put participants through eight weeks of daily yoga and meditation practice. The study concluded “... participants reported significantly reduced perceived stress. Reductions in perceived stress correlated positively with decreases in right basolateral amygdala gray matter density.”

The researchers stated that exercise seemed as effective as antidepressant drugs and psychological treatments.

Another study showing exercise as a way to overcome depression is the 2013 meta-analysis which reported that exercise (aerobic and heavy lifting) was “moderately effective” in treating depressive symptoms. Of particular note is that the researchers stated that exercise seemed as effective as antidepressant drugs and psychological treatments.


All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own health provider. Please consult a licensed health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Brock Armstrong Get-Fit Guy

Brock Armstrong was the host of the Get-Fit Guy podcast between 2017 and 2021. He is a certified AFLCA Group Fitness Leader with a designation in Portable Equipment, NCCP and CAC Triathlon Coach, and a TnT certified run coach. He is also on the board of advisors for the Primal Health Coach Institute and a guest faculty member of the Human Potential Institute. 

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