Your Brain on Exercise

Posted On Friday, 15 April 2016
Your Brain on Exercise

It’s a fact. Approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. (43.8 million, or 18.5%) experiences mental illness in a given year, according to the National Institutes of Mental Health.

We also know how exercise is one of the best drug-free ways to improve mental health and wellbeing, and not just in the short term. Research has shown that exercise can alleviate depression for the long run as well.

But, just why is exercise so beneficial for alleviating depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses? What is it about exercise that makes it such an effective all natural anti-depressant?

The answer lies within us.

In our brain to be specific. Exercise is so effective an antidepressant because of its impact on our brain chemistry. Just think to your last workout at the gym. Maybe you were on the treadmill. Or the bike. Or lifting weights. How did you feel when you finished? Relaxed? Refreshed? Re-invigorated?

For that, you can start by thanking your endorphins; those specialized chemicals in your brain known as neurotransmitters that surge after a solid workout. Neurotransmitters transmit electrical signals from one brain cell to the next. When you work out, these endorphin neurotransmitters kick into high gear, acting as pain relievers. So, instead of feeling pain after a hard workout, you feel euphoria. While you’re cranking it up on the treadmill, your endorphins are cranking it up too; binding to pain receptors on the surface of brain cells so as to block transmission of pain. They are, in essence, our natural, internal (“endo”) morphine drug!

And while many of us are already familiar with endorphins, there is another neurotransmitter that is equally responsible for that feel-good sensation you get when you work out. That’s serotonin (no relation to my cousin Sarah Tonin).

Serotonin acts on your brain to regulate mood, sexual desire, appetite, sleep, memory and learning. So when your levels of serotonin are low, all these brain and body functions are diminished too.

Low levels of serotonin, as many readers may know, have also been cited as one cause of depressive illness. Pharmaceutical anti-depressants like Prozac, Paxil and Zoloft, work to increase levels of brain serotonin to elevate mood and relieve the symptoms of depression.

Guess what? Exercise does the same thing.

Each time you jump onto the elliptical, take a kickboxing class or do a set of body squats, your brain triggers the production of an amino acid called tryptophan which gets converted into serotonin. The more frequently you exercise, the more frequently you trigger tryptophan release and its conversation to serotonin.

Yet another reason why you feel so good when you leave the gym.

But wait! The best is yet to come, because there is one more activity bubbling in your brain when you exercise, which, pardon the pun…is a mind blower.

It’s called BDNF or Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor. BDNF is a protein located in a part of the brain known as the hippocampus which is responsible for memory and emotions. Research has shown that depression actually shrinks the size of the hippocampus by reducing the number of brain cells inside it. With fewer brain cells connecting with each other, brain communication is impaired, memory declines, and emotions tank.

Enter BDNF to the rescue. BDNF actually triggers the formation and development of new brain cells (a.k.a. neurogenesis) in the hippocampus. As more neurons are created in this region, the size of the hippocampus increases and memory and mood are improved.

Can you guess how BDNF is produced? You got it. Exercise.

So from the endorphin kick to the serotonin surge to the BDNF bump, now you know why you feel so good when you train and now you have three more reasons to feel good about doing it.

Lorne David Opler, MEd, CSCS

Lorne Opler has been a Certified Personal Trainer with the American Council on Exercise since 1997 and is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Coach through the National Strength and Conditioning Association. He has a Master's degree in Health Education from the University of Texas at Austin and is currently an instructor in the Fitness and Health Promotion program at Centennial College in Toronto, Ontario, where he teaches up-and-coming personal trainers.

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