How does exercise make us feel better? Let’s look at the neuroscience.
Updated: Nov 18, 2022
As a psychotherapist and yoga therapist I'm really interested in the link between physical activity and psychological health. Exercise is helpful for us for many different reasons. It’s one of the important ways that we maintain our physical health. It also helps boost our mental health by the release of endorphins – our natural painkiller that gives us that “feel good buzz” during and after exercise. Through neuroscience, the science of the brain and nervous system, we are discovering that exercise can be helpful in many other ways as well, especially in relation to mood and emotion. Let’s have a look at some of these mood and emotion effects as outlined by Dr John E Ratey, Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, in the book “Spark” (2008):
Exercise lowers the resting tension of muscles thus interrupts the anxiety feedback loop to the brain – basically, it softens tightness in the muscles, calming the body. If the body is calm, the brain is less prone to worry.
With exercise we can increase brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). Every time we engage in any thought or behaviour, an associated pathway of brain cells will “fire” that pathway. The more we engage in that thought or behaviour the stronger that pathway becomes and hence we increase the likelihood of that thought or behaviour. This is why it feels so hard to change how we respond to some of our unhelpful thoughts and to reduce unhelpful behaviours. But with wilful effort, we can weaken those pathways and make those shifts.This change in pathways is also what underpins practise, the more we do something, the stronger those pathways become and practise gets easier. (This is a concept called neuroplasticity and here is an ace little 2-minute video bringing the concept to life visually). This is exactly what happens when we apply CBT and mindfulness-based techniques. By practising engaging in helpful thoughts and behaviours we are developing more helpful ways to respond to situations and alongside that will be the development of brain cell pathways that fire each time we do. Those pathways will become stronger and thus practise feels less effortful over time. So, how is brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) involved in this?? Well basically, BDNF is like fertiliser for our brain! It helps to keep our brain cells functioning and growing, as well as spurring the growth of new brain cells. This is soooo helpful when we are learning new skills that need those new pathways to become stronger and stronger. Exercise really does help us to learn!
BDNF can also increase serotonin levels. Serotonin is a chemical (called a neurotransmitter) found in the brain and low levels of serotonin can be a factor in depression and anxiety.
GABA is another neurotransmitter found in the brain, low levels of which are associated with anxiety and depression. Many anti-anxiety medications work by increasing levels of GABA. When we exercise, guess what happens to GABA? It increases! So we can think of exercise as our own anti-anxiety activity.
When we increase our heart rate through exercise, our heart muscle cells release a chemical called ANP which has the effect of reducing our body’s stress response. So it’s like our body becomes used to the increased heart rate and teaches itself to calm itself down. This is different to what happens when our heart rate increases when we feel stressed or anxious as psychologically, when we exercise we feel more in control of the increased heart rate. So by exercising we are boosting our resilience to stress.
If we’re in need of more motivation for exercise, we can turn to Wendy Suzuki, Professor of Neuroscience at New York University who has carried out research on how exercise provides long-lasting and protective benefits for our brain by boosting mood and memory. Her research has found that exercise is the most transformative thing you can do for your brain for 3 reasons:
It has immediate effects by increasing levels of the brain chemicals dopamine, serotonin and noradrenaline. These are neurotransmitters which can improve mood immediately after working out.
It can lead to focused attention that lasts for 2 hours after exercise.
It can improve our reaction times.
She provides an overview of this research in her Ted Talk, along with what she discovered in relation to the long terms effects of exercise:
Exercise changes the brains anatomy, physiology and function – leading to brand new brain cells grown in a part of the brain called the hippocampus – this improves long term memory. The growth of new brain cells is called neurogenesis.
Long term improved focus and attention.
Long lasting increases in neurotransmitters that improve mood.
She goes on to explain that exercise is protective as it strengthens the pre-frontal cortex (PFC) and hippocampus which are two areas of the brain that are most susceptible to neuro-degenerative diseases and age-related normal cognitive decline. She states that by exercising, we protect our brain and thus it can take longer for these things to affect us.
She suggests to exercise 3-4 times per week, a minimum of 30 mins, including some aerobic exercise i.e. exercise that gets your heart rate up and suggests that we can include these things in our day without needing to do a class e.g. by taking a power walk around the block, or using the stairs.
Exercising can be one thing that you can do to improve your mental and physical wellbeing, and as Suzuki states “change the trajectory of your life for the better with these short and long term protective effects”.
So, here we have some very clear reasons to help motivate us to do exercise, not only to keep us physically fit, but also to harness the pharmacy in our brain - as brain surgeon and neuroscientist Dr Rahul Jandial calls it - to help us manage feelings of stress, anxiety and depression and protect our brain health. If you’re unsure where to start, there’s loads of workouts online and if you’re unsure about exercise because of health issues, you can speak to your GP about getting started. Starting small can be a useful approach – even 5 minutes of exercise is better than none at all! You can change the trajectory of your life today!