The benefits of exercise on brain function and mental health

Thursday, August 17, 2017. Author Sarah Barron

Happy couple running

Everyone knows that exercise is good for your physical health, but only recently have the positive effects on mental health and well-being gained recognition. Exercise improves mood, enhances memory and focus, improves sleep quality and circadian cycles, decreases anxiety/stress, and has even been shown to have protective effects against Alzheimer's disease and age-related cognitive decline! 1. With the world's population getting older and fatter, and 1 in 3 of us now experiencing some form of mental health problem in our lifetime, there has never been a better time to get moving!

The good news is that you don't need to commit to hours in the gym, as studies show that you can reap the same rewards with just 30mins of moderate- intensity exercise, 5 times a week. Even a 15 min walk outside in the fresh air has mood-enhancing effects! 2

The short term benefits: 

Have you ever gone for a run after a particularly stressful day and felt much better afterward? I'm sure you have all experienced the short-term reward that exercise offers. Perhaps you don't enjoy the first 5 mins as your chest gets tighter, your heart beats faster and your muscles go into a mini state of shock, but after pushing past the initial hurdle (around 10-15mins duration), a rush of energy, of positivity, of pain relief, and euphoria flood your body, and you feel pretty unstoppable!

This feel-good factor not only lasts for the duration of the activity, but can last up to 12 hours afterwards3, so that increased focus and optimism can transfer into other areas of your life as well! If you are new to exercise in general, the trick is to start off with a realistic and manageable regime. Many people are put off exercise because they set themselves up for failure by starting out way too hard. For example, exercising beyond your ventilatory threshold (the point which you can no longer hold a conversation), increases physical discomfort and delays the mood enhancing effects for up to 30mins9- so exercise smart and work with your own body!

Exercise is also a good opportunity to practice mindfulness. This involves gaining awareness of changes in physical sensations without attaching meaning to them and becoming fully present within each moment - a technique gaining huge popularity and proving very beneficial for those prone to anxiety or panic related disorders 4. Even practicing as little as 10 minutes of mindfulness a day can reduce stress-related complaints!

So why not kill two birds with one stone- next time you're working out, try noticing how the rhythm of your breath changes as the exercise intensity increases, or the sensation of your feet pressing the floor away. You'll be amazed how adding this element into your workouts not only improves your technique and performance but also allows you to clear your head.

The Long term benefits:

Getting regular exercise not only improves concentration and mood in the short term, but improves memory, cognitive processing, and motor control in the long term too! 5. This is especially important given the world's aging population where neuro-muscular weakness, age-related cognitive decline and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's are on the rise. Regular exercise has also been linked to an increase in anti-inflammatory and infection fighting cells. Over time, this increase improves both the brain and body's immune defense system, making you less prone to illness and more able to cope with environmental, physical and mental stressors 6.

As well as regulating various biological factors, exercise also has beneficial long-term effects on psychological well-being. Building a goal-oriented training routine can give you a sense of purpose, the joy of accomplishment, and reinforce your self-belief and ability to cope with other physical and mental difficulties. For many suffering from depression, anxiety and eating disorders, following an exercise program can provide a healthy and safe alternative to dangerous coping mechanisms like self-harming, the use of alcohol, recreational or prescription drugs,  as well as improve sleep quality and can even help prevent relapse 7. Exercise is a great natural remedy for beating the blues, so let's get moving and keep those negative feelings at bay!

The science behind it all:

It's not surprising that exercise makes us feel good, given that back in the hunter-gatherer days, exercise was essential for our survival: for finding food and for running away from predators. Although these factors are no longer a risk in modern day society, looking after our mental well-being and quality of life should be a priority! So what are the biological processes that underpin these exercise-induced transformations in our brains?

The feel good factor, pain relief and feelings of euphoria experienced during and after exercise, sometimes coined the "runner's high", is due to the release of chemical signals such as dopamine, noradrenaline, endorphins, and endocannabinoids in areas of the brain associated with reward, motivation, emotional regulation and pain relief 6,8. Anxiolytic or calming effects are thought to be due to the release of serotonin, a chemical transmitter associated with appetite, mood and sleep regulation 9. Modulation of serotonin is also the major action of antidepressant medication and is most likely one of the reasons why following an exercise program can be just as effective as antidepressants in treating and preventing the relapse of depression 7.

The cognitive enhancing effects are due, in part, to the increased production of neurotrophic or "brain growth" factors, especially in an area of the brain called the hippocampus which is associated with memory formation. Examples of neurotrophins include BDNF (brain-derived-neurotrophic factor), VEGF (vascular-endothelial-growth-factor) and IGF-1 (insulin-like-gowth-factor-1) which aid in the protection of existing brain cells (neurones), increase growth of new neurones, and help clear the accumulation of "bad" proteins or plaques associated with diseases like Alzheimer's. 

In short:

Find an activity you enjoy- exercise doesn't necessarily equate to a gym membership! Why not try swimming, cycling, running, practicing martial arts, playing tennis, or even joining an outdoor rolling skating club. There is more than one way to get your heart racing, and in doing so, you're not only looking after your body but you are also looking after your mind!

Here at FitnessGenes we test for genes associated with your individual energy production, recovery rate, and sleep cycles, so what are you waiting for?!

Visit our online shop today to find out how your genetics could hold the key to your optimal workout regime and fitness journey success.

I hope you enjoyed my article, and I invite you to read my other FitnessGenes blogs:  

How your sleep cycle impacts your weight and your workouts

What's the difference between bodybuilding, powerlifting, and Olympic lifting?

See our related stories on how Food Can Improve Your Mood and SMART goal setting,


  1. Bherer L, Erickson KI, Liu-Ambrose T. A Review of the Effects of Physical Activity and Exercise on Cognitive and Brain Functions in Older Adults. Journal of Aging Research. 2013;2013.
  2. Hansen CJ, Stevens LC, Coast JR. Exercise duration and mood state: How much is enough to feel better? Health Psychology. 2001;20(4):267-“275.
  3. Sibold JS, Berg KM. Mood Enhancement Persists for up to 12 Hours following Aerobic Exercise: A Pilot Study. Perceptual and Motor Skills. 2010;111(2):333-“342.
  4. Call D, Miron L, Orcutt H. Effectiveness of Brief Mindfulness Techniques in Reducing Symptoms of Anxiety and Stress. Mindfulness. 2014;5(6):658-“668.
  5. Voss MW, Erickson KI, Prakash RS, Chaddock L, Kim JS, Alves H, Szabo A, Phillips SM, Wojcicki TR, Mailey EL, et al. Neurobiological markers of exercise-related brain plasticity in older adults. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity. 2013;28:90-“99.
  6. Deslandes A, Moraes H, Ferreira C, Veiga H, Silveira H, Mouta R, Pompeu FAMS, Silva E, Coutinho F, Laks J. Exercise and Mental Health: Many Reasons to Move. Neuropsychobiology. 2009;59:191-“198.
  7. Silveira H, Moraes H, Oliveira N, Coutinho ESF, Laks J, Deslandes A. Physical exercise and clinically depressed patients: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Neuropsychobiology. 2013;67(2):61“8.
  8. Boecker H, Sprenger T, Spilker ME, Henriksen G, Koppenhoefer M, Wagner KJ, Valet M, Berthele A, Tolle TR. The Runner's High: Opioidergic Mechanisms in the Human Brain. Cerebral Cortex. 2008;18(11):2523-“2531.
  9. Otto MW, Smits JAJ. Exercise for Mood and Anxiety: Proven Strategies for Overcoming Depression and Enhancing Well-Being. Oxford University Press; 2011. 235 p.

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