You’ve probably heard people say that exercise is good for your mental health. But the benefits of exercise go beyond just having you “feel better.” Exercise actually changes your brain.
A recent article on Quartz by psychiatrist and neuroscientist Arash Javanbakht examines how exercise alters the brain.
Javanbakht says regular exercise, especially cardio, does, in fact, actually change the brain. He describes the brain as a very plastic, changeable organ. Not only are new neuronal connections formed every day, but also new cells are generated in important areas of the brain. One key area is the hippocampus, which is involved in learning and memory and regulating negative emotions.
A molecule called brain-derived neurotrophic factor helps the brain produce neurons, or brain cells. A variety of aerobic and high-intensity interval training exercises significantly increase BDNF levels. There is evidence from animal research that these changes are at epigenetic level, which means these behaviors affect how genes are expressed, leading to changes in the neuronal connections and function.
Moderate exercise also seems to have anti-inflammatory effects, regulating the immune system and excessive inflammation. This is important, given the new insight neuroscience is gaining into the potential role of inflammation in anxiety and depression.
Also, there is evidence for the positive effects of exercise on the neurotransmitters—brain chemicals that send signals between neurons—dopamine and endorphins. Both of these are involved in positive mood and motivation.
Read more about how exercise combats anxiety and depression.