7 Fascinating Ways Exercise Changes Your Brain

by Carina Wolff
BDG Media, Inc.

When most of us think of the health effects of working out, we tend to think how it affects our body. But staying active can do more than change the way your body looks — it can affect your mind as well. There a number of surprising ways that exercise can change your brain, and once you discover how important physical activity is for your cognition and mental health, you might never looking at going to the gym the same way again.

"Exercise is important for the brain for many reasons," clinical sports neuropsychologist Dr. Erin Reynolds tells Bustle. "Exercise helps regulate hormones and chemicals within the brain that contribute to better moods, improved sleep quality, and overall brain health. Exercise also helps improve cognitive functions like memory and concentration. A regular exercise regimen can help regulate the autonomic nervous system, which may lead to decreased anxiety and an increased ability to deal with life's stressful situations. Exercise is medicine!"

The next time you're trying to motivate yourself to get moving, it can be useful to think of all the ways working out can improve the way you think and feel. Here are seven ways exercise changes your brain and improves your mental and cognitive health, according to experts.


It Improves Your Mood

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It turns out Elle Woods was on to something in Legally Blonde when she delivered her monologue about endorphins.

"Exercise has an overall effect on mood, with some studies suggesting just five minutes of activity is enough to alter mood state," says Dr. Reynolds. "Exercise increases endorphins and other chemicals that make you feel good, and enhances your overall sense of wellbeing." One review out of the University of Toronto even found that moderate exercise can prevent episodes of depression in the long-term.


It Reduces Stress & Anxiety

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"Regular exercise reduces activity in the sympathetic nervous system, also known as the 'fight or flight' response in the brain," says Reynolds. "It can help regulate this response by increasing activity in the parasympathetic nervous system... including lowering blood pressure, regulating breathing, and slowing heart rate. This overall helps the body to maintain a lower state of arousal at baseline, which means that over time, we won’t be as easily triggered by anxiety-producing events."


It Improves Your Sleep

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One study published in the journal Mental Health and Physical Activity found that people who get at least 150 minutes of exercise per week sleep significantly better. "This is also connected to the impact on mood: exercise alleviates stress and anxiety, which also facilitates better sleep," says Reynolds. Additionally, for people with insomnia, exercise has been found to improve overall sleep quality, reduce night time awakening, and help people feel well-rested the following day, according to Michael Richardson, MD. of One Medical.


It Improves Your Cognitive Function

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And your intellectual activity benefits from physical activity too. "Perhaps the coolest effect of exercise in the brain is the upregulation of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) genes," says Reynolds. "We still don’t understand the exact mechanisms by which this occurs, but BDNF has been associated with improved cognitive functioning as well as reduced anxiety and depression. BDNF plays an integral role in the growth and development of brain cells, or neurons, and has also been shown to improve the survival rate of neurons threatened by nerve damage."


It Protects Against Dementia

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Regular exercise can also lower your risk of vascular and neurodegenerative disease by improving cerebral blood flow. "When we exercise, blood pressure regulates as blood flow increases throughout the body, particularly in the brain," says Reynolds. "Exercising on a regular basis fuels the brain with nutrient-rich blood and eliminates unwanted toxins. Improved cerebral blood flow provides energy and improves brain performance. If your brain does not get adequate blood supply, there is increased risk of vascular disease (i.e. vascular dementia) and neurodegenerative disease such as Alzheimer’s disease."


It Improves Your Focus

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Starting an exercise routine can be a great first step in improving focus. "[Research has found] that 20 to 30 minutes of moderate-to-high-intensity physical activity had an immediate improvement on focus, and that exercising at least once a week improved attention, executive function, and planning," says Richardson. In fact, research shows that exercise can even help provide support for Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).


It Boosts Your Memory

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Since working out can improve so many other aspects of our cognition, it should come as no surprise that it can also boost memory. "Studies show that mild-to-moderate physical activity, such as walking, yoga, or resistance training, can help maintain your cognitive health," says Richardson. "We don’t know how much or what types of exercises are best, so I recommend incorporating any physical activity in your daily routine [for both physical and mental benefits]"

As you can see, exercise can be great for our bodies, but it can also do wonders for our brain.