How Exactly Exercise Affects Your Brain—And Your Mood

Exercise and Endorphins

Getty/Design by Cristina Cianci

You've probably heard the phrase "exercise is therapy." In many ways, it's true: studies show that exercise can improve your energy, decrease symptoms of depression and anxiety, and prevent chronic illness. We know exercise gives you a major boost in more ways than one, but what workouts do to the brain is still being studied. One popular theory attributes these improved feelings to the rush of endorphins. But how do endorphins impact our workout and our mood? We went to the experts to find out. Read on for what they had to say.

Meet the Expert

  • Steve Petruzzello, PhD, is director of the Exercise Psychophysiology Laboratory at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
  • Neha Gothe, MA, PhD, is director of the Exercise Psychology Lab at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

What Does Exercise Do To Your Brain? 

Scientists still don’t know everything that goes on in the brain during and after exercise. But they do know that whatever is happening improves our mood. One fan-favorite explanation is that activity triggers the release of endorphins or feel-good substances our bodies produce. There are studies to support this, but that may not be the whole picture, says Petruzzello.

Increased blood flow to the brain might also contribute to post-workout glow, according to Petruzzello. Our heart rates often go up when we exercise. This pumps more oxygen- and nutrient-rich blood into the brain - including the areas responsible for our emotions - which helps it function better. Extra blood flow from regular exercise can also set us up for long-term brain health by boosting our memory and thinking skills, which can help prevent age-related diseases like dementia or Alzheimer’s. 

Our bodies also have what’s called an endocannabinoid system, or a network of molecules that help regulate sleep, moods, memory, and more. When we exercise, our body releases these molecules, which help generate pleasure and mediate stress. And research suggests that the more vigorous the exercise, the more your endocannabinoid system kicks in. 

How Does Exercise Affect Your Mood? 

All of that activity in our brain impacts our psychological well-being. Our mental state during and after exercise can be different, clarifies Neha Gothe, MA, Ph.D., director of the Exercise Psychology Lab at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. There are plenty of factors that can make for an enjoyable workout, like inspirational music, doing an activity you love or working out with friends. But you might not always feel great when you exercise based on how familiar you are with the activity, where you are, who you’re with, or whether the instructor is encouraging you. 

Overly intense exercise can also make you feel crummy, says Petruzzello, thanks to an accumulation of lactic acid in the body that can make you feel tired or sore. Nonetheless, he notes, people usually feel good after a workout regardless of its intensity because of all of those happy chemicals circulating in the brain. 

And it's in part thanks to those happy chemicals that exercise is proven to reduce stress, unhappiness, and brain fog. This applies to clinical illness, too. “There’s evidence that exercise can help people who are clinically depressed reduce their symptoms at least temporarily, and in some cases can actually go into remission,” says Petruzzello. 

The mood-altering impact of exercise also has to do with its downstream effects. For instance, Gothe notes, “exercise tends to improve sleep. There’s a cyclical relationship: if you sleep well, you’re more likely to be active the next day.” Group fitness can be a source of socialization or community for some folks. Studies show that a sense of social connectedness can improve self-esteem and reduce anxiety, depression, and loneliness. According to research, listening to music you like also activates parts of the brain that contribute to positive emotions and lower stress. 

How Can You Use Exercise to Boost Your Mental Health? 

While there’s no prescription for the best exercises to improve your mental well-being, any activity can help. You can focus on some characteristics to optimize your workout for more psychological benefits, says Gothe. 

First things first, find something you like. “Exercise is not just running, jogging, walking, or strength training,” says Gothe. “You can do yoga, dancing, tai chi, rock climbing, camping, or other activities you enjoy.” Science agrees: you’re more likely to keep exercising if you like the activity.

Moderate to vigorous exercise seems to pack more of a mood-boosting punch than lighter activity, Gothe notes. What constitutes moderate to vigorous exercise differs for everyone. My moderate running pace might be a light exercise to a marathoner or high-intensity for someone new to jogging.

Timing also counts. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend two and a half hours of moderate exercise a week. This leaves room for workouts of all shapes and sizes, from hours-long walks to minutes-long bursts of activity. “Add actionable things to your everyday routine, like doing squats while you’re on a no-video Zoom call or a wall sit while you brush your teeth,” suggests Becca Russo, a certified fitness instructor. “Just because you’re not drenched in sweat after an activity doesn’t mean you won’t benefit from it.”

And switching it up never hurts. While a strict arm, leg, and abs day rotation works for some, research shows that varying your activities can keep you more engaged and help your body and mind reap the benefits of exercise. Your preferences might change naturally: maybe you preferred solitary runs to get some alone time, but now you crave group fitness. Roll with it! 

How to Get Started

If you’re new to exercise, Gothe proposes starting with the CDC’s Move Your Way program, which offers evidence-based suggestions for how much and what kind of activity to do. 

Russo suggests taking stock of what makes you happy outside of fitness: “What are you missing from your life in general, and can you incorporate that into your workout to kill two birds with one stone?” If you crave social interaction or the great outdoors, perhaps take a walk with a friend. Or, if you love music, try a music-driven class. Regardless, take fitness as a renewed opportunity to indulge in the things you love. 

And now is a great time to dabble in activities until you find your fit. “Utilize free classes, especially now that so many options are virtual,” says Russo. “If it’s not working for you, you can leave a virtual workout without anyone noticing. Try something new in the privacy and comfort of your own home."

If building a routine isn’t for you or sounds like too much to take on right now, no problem! “Just move more and sit less,” says Petruzzello. “Moving at all is more important than what the movement is.”

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