The Ultimate Brain Booster: Exercise and Mental Health

By Soren Ghorai

The Ultimate Brain Booster: Exercise and Mental Health

When you’re feeling down, it can be difficult to find the motivation to get up and exercise. Exercise may seem like the last thing you want to do, but it can make huge improvements for your mental health. So next time you’re feeling low, getting up and going for a jog could be exactly what you need.

Exercise linked to Emotional Well-Being

In a recent study, researchers examined the effects of exercise on how well people could regulate their emotions. The study consisted of 40 men and 40 women that were randomly assigned to either an aerobic exercise group or no exercise (stretching) group. After their assignment, participants completed an affective rating where they indicated their current emotional state on a scale from 0-100 for both positive emotions (happy, content, excited) and negative emotions (sad, angry, anxious). Then the aerobic exercise group jogged for 30 minutes around a track while the no exercise group simply stretched, serving as a control. After the exercise, participants watched a short clip from the movie The Champ to evoke sadness, and another brief clip from the film When Harry met Sally to promote feelings of happiness and amusement. In between each clip, participants repeated an affective rating again to examine how much the movie clips had influenced their emotional state. Also, participants performed the Difficulties in Emotion Regulation Scale (DERS) to determine their difficulty with regulating emotions.

The results demonstrated a clear relationship between exercise and the ability to regulate emotions. Participants who spent 30 minutes stretching had more difficulty regulating emotions and experienced persistent feelings of sadness. Those who ran were less affected by the emotional stimuli and reported significantly less sadness than those who had only stretched.

This study suggested that regular exercise may help improve emotion regulation. The authors noted that aerobic exercise is shown to improve attention and inhibitory control, and that attentional control is linked to stronger emotional regulation. Hence, participants who were runners perhaps already improved their attention and inhibitory control through regular exercise, allowing them to better regulate their emotions.

How does exercise help your brain?

Exercise triggers a variety of processes in the brain that can help improve your mood and alleviate any negative emotions. During exercise, the body releases chemicals called When you feel pain or stress, your body sends signals to the brain. Endorphins are released to block the signals, relieving any pain and creating a general sense of happiness and well-being. This is why people typically experience a “runner’s high,” since running stimulates a release of endorphins. Serotonin is another “happy” brain chemical produced from exercise that can improve mood. This was described in one study where researchers concluded that physical activity increased the release and synthesis of serotonin.

Exercise also activates the brain’s reward system. In one systematic review, researchers reviewed 940 articles and found that physical activity directly triggers the release of dopamine, a primary driver of the brain’s reward system that induces pleasure and motivation. This explains the immediate feelings of satisfaction during and after a workout. Over time, regular exercise prompts the brain to produce more dopamine and create more dopamine receptors, making you feel better and better after each workout. In this way, exercise establishes a positive cycle in the brain: as you work out, your brain responds by making you feel good, which motivates you to exercise even more. Hence, exercise can expand your capacity for joy.

Additionally, physical activity can improve your overall brain function. One study noted that exercise increases the production of growth factors, which are proteins in the brain that help nerve cells grow and make new connections. Specifically, exercise produces brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which improves nerve cell growth in the hippocampus, the area of the brain responsible for mood. By producing BNDF, exercise supports nerve cell growth in the hippocampus, which can improve one’s ability to regulate and boost their emotions.

How much exercise do you need?

Luckily, you don’t have to run marathons to improve your mood. For healthy adults, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity per week. If that seems like a lot, being active for just 10-15 minutes throughout the day can still make major improvements for your mental health (Mayo Clinic). The key is finding a type of exercise that you enjoy. Choosing a fun activity will not only help you enjoy the exercise, but it will keep you more motivated to do it. Check with your doctor to find out how much exercise and what intensity level is appropriate for you.