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Behind the scenes benefits of regular exercise

Behind the scenes benefits of regular exercise

Most people know that routine physical activity is essential for overall physical health, but the behind-the-scenes benefits of regular exercise may surprise you. According to the American Psychological Association, there’s inarguable evidence to support the hypothesis that exercise improves mental health.


Many people associate supplements, certain foods, and brain games with improving brain health, but exercise is also a highly effective tool for upgrading your brain. Why is that?


Researchers have found that because physical activity boosts blood circulation to the brain, it increases the amount of oxygen and critical nutrients the brain regularly receives. Consequently, the brain ramps up its production of hormones and neurotrophic factors that support new brain cell development.


Those substances also improve nerve signaling and form new nerve connections. What’s more, studies have shown that the substances responsible for this uptick in brain activity and cell turnover are frequently lacking in sedentary individuals.



Because exercise increases nutrient and oxygen delivery to your brain, it literally increases brain volume throughout specific regions. The hippocampus — the area that regulates memory retention and learning — is the primary region that experiences this exercise-related increase in volume. The medial temporal lobe gets a boost, too.


Researchers have discovered that this phenomenon has profound implications for maintaining cognitive function and memory throughout the aging process. It can also help improve learning and memory in younger individuals.


Aside from improving your ability to learn and retain information, increased brain volume also helps with:


●        Executive decision-making abilities

●        Information processing

●        Emotional regulation


But there is a caveat here: To boost brain volume and enjoy the benefits of improved cognitive function, you must sustain a regular exercise habit long term. How long? Harvard Medical School says it takes six months to a year of routine exercise at a moderate intensity to increase the volume of select regions of the brain.

Perhaps more importantly, research shows that group exercise is excellent for mental health. One study found that people who exercise in groups experience a greater reduction in stress levels and more significant improvements in quality of life than those who work out solo.



In addition to its positive effects on cell growth, neurogenesis, and brain volume, regular exercise also triggers the release of a variety of feel-good brain chemicals, including:


●        Endorphins

●        Serotonin

●        Dopamine

●        Norepinephrine

●        Adrenaline


These endogenously produced chemicals are natural mood boosters, so they make you feel happier, more content, and more accomplished when you finish a great workout. If you’ve ever heard talk about runner’s high, that’s a product of increased levels of those feel-good brain chemicals. 



Although the mood boost you get after exercise is temporary — it typically lasts a few hours at most — increased production of feel-good brain chemicals helps with long-term mood regulation. And that means exercise can help improve symptoms of depression.


What’s more, because regular, long-term exercise increases activity and volume in the hippocampus, it stimulates the development of new neurons throughout the region. That’s important because mounting evidence suggests that mood disorders — particularly anxiety and depression — are tied to suboptimal neurogenesis in the hippocampus. 


Though anecdotal evidence suggests that many people who struggle with depression find exercise challenging, the potential benefits cannot be understated. Anecdotal reports, along with interventional and observational studies, strongly suggest that in terms of depression management, regular exercise has extraordinarily positive outcomes.


Study participants report that physical activity is more effective than placebo treatments and equal to or better than certain conventional treatments, including psychotherapy.



The increased release of feel-good hormones and brain chemicals that occurs during exercise provides a near-immediate emotional regulating effect. And researchers have found that that effect can also provide temporary relief from symptoms of anxiety. When practiced on a regular basis, exercise can even prevent anxiety from returning. 


In addition to the hormones and chemicals mentioned earlier, physical activity also increases the availability of other endogenously produced neurochemicals, including:


●        Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA)

●        Endogenous cannabinoids

●        Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF)


These powerful endogenous substances are essentially your brain’s version of natural anti-anxiety medication. Even better, unlike conventional medications, they don’t produce any undesirable side effects!


Aside from ramping up the production of anxiety-leveling brain chemicals, exercise also increases activity in the brain's frontal region. This region regulates the activity of another brain region called the amygdala.


Why is that noteworthy?


Because anxiety sufferers tend to have hyper responsive amygdala's, so their brains perceive even minor stressors as major threats, hence the anxiety response. Because routine exercise helps control the amygdala’s response to perceived threats, it has proven a remarkably effective tool for anxiety management.



After a tough, sweaty workout, it’s pretty hard not to feel accomplished. And exercising with others on a regular basis helps build a sense of teamwork that often makes people feel as though they’re part of something bigger than themselves.


That sense of achievement and collaboration has a unique way of making people feel more empowered and optimistic, and those feelings help build self-confidence. According to researchers, exercising solo can help boost self-esteem, too.



Moderate-intensity exercise can help increase your ability to concentrate and shift your focus quickly. Studies have found that just one workout session can promote better reaction time, and a single short training session can even improve concentration in people with ADHD.


Scientists believe this boost in concentration and focus is the product of increased production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which happens when people engage in intense exercise.