How Exercise Affects Your Brain

We all know regular workouts are great for our bodies but the impact on our minds is not to be understated. From helping to improve mental health and memory to reducing feelings of stress and anxiety, making time for exercise is something we can all benefit from. The even better news is that there are no rules on what exercise to do to increase happiness and brain power – what you do is up to you. For some, the social buzz you get from group classes might be the thing, while for others a solo run might work. The important thing is to put the time in and reap the rewards.

It makes you feel happier

You’ve heard the expression ‘runner’s high’ but thankfully, that sense of post workout euphoria isn’t just limited to runners. When we exercise it triggers the release of endorphins in the brain, neurotransmitters that make us feel happier and more content. Exercise also impacts the the endocannabinoid system, a network of molecules in the body responsible for regulating memory, mood, sleep and more. Endocannabinoids and their receptors are found throughout the body in various organs, tissues, glands and cells, including the brain and immune cells and experts believe that it’s these signaling molecules which help create a bridge between the body and mind. When we perform physical activity, our bodies release these molecules which in turn promote feelings of pleasure.

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It makes you smarter

It doesn’t just make you feel good, experts believe that exercise can help you perform better mentally too. That’s because when our heart rate goes up it pumps more oxygen-rich blood to the brain. This boosted blood flow energises the brain, helping it to function better and boost cognitive skill and memory. It’s also thought that increased blood flow to the brain helps trigger certain hormones responsible for stimulating the growth of brain cells; research from UCLA also showed that exercise increases growth factors in the brain that enable it to grow better neuronal connections, while studies in Sweden found that running was associated with more cell growth in the hippocampus, the area of the brain responsible for learning and memory.

It reduces stress

Exercise as a form of therapy for those going through low moods or conditions like depression is often recommended and that’s because it has a potent ability to reduce feelings of stress and anxiety. As well as producing feel-good hormones, exercise also acts a bit like an anti-depressant, lowering stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. And although exercise itself does naturally stimulate the release of these hormones, the act of working out will actually help reduce them again by the time you need to start winding down and thinking about sleeping. To keep your cortisol levels in check and get the most out of exercise’s stress-relieving benefits, try to train in the morning. It’s when your natural cortisol levels are at their highest anyway, so it makes sense to capitalise on this, plus it still allows them plenty of time to drop naturally in preparation for bed.

It encourages long-term happiness

As well as releasing endorphins that help dampen down feelings of stress, anxiety and brain fog, regular exercise will improve the quality of your sleep which will in turn allow you to feel better, more alert and happier in the long run. Regular exercise can also affect your sleep quality by raising your body temperature by a few degrees. After you’ve worked out, your internal thermostat then drops back to its normal range, which can trigger normal feelings of drowsiness and help you drift off to sleep. If you can, do some of your exercise outdoors and expose yourself to natural light, it’s a factor that plays important part in helping your body maintain its circadian rhythm and establish a good sleep-wake cycle.