Why Your Brain Loves Exercise, According to Science

Plus the best workouts for brain health.

By: Jessica Migala

The reason you exercise? To strengthen your muscles, safeguard your heart, build bone health, among other physical reasons. But for anyone who’s felt mentally better after a run or on-demand workout video, you know that breaking a sweat also benefits your brain too. Namely, physical activity can decrease stress, boost your mood, and better cognitive health today and in the future. Here’s how.

How Exercise Makes You Happy 

Your body was made to move — for your physical and mental health. And that’s no more apparent than the smattering of studies that link exercise with a better mood. In fact, exercise has been found to reduce the risk for depression, according to a 2019 study in JAMA Psychiatry.  The goal should be to replace sedentary behavior with either 15 minutes of vigorous activity (like running), an hour of moderate physical activity (like speed walking), or a combination of light and vigorous activity, like standing more or doing housework alongside bursts of get-your-heart-rate-up movement, the researchers say.

Exercise not only helps you regulate stress (a serious mood-killer), but it may also promote mood-boosting brain chemicals like serotonin and dopamine, as well as improve your body’s ability to overcome anxiety, according to the American Psychological Association (APA).

Also important to note: Exercise improves your sleep, both in helping you snack more time snoozing and improving the quality of that sleep, Johns Hopkins Medicine points out. And there’s a well-established link between poor sleep and increased levels of stress, sadness, and anxiety. Exercise is another way to improve your sleep and, in turn, regulate your mood.

How Mindful Exercises Benefit The Brain 

The APA suggests combining traditional physical activity with mindfulness meditation, a type of mindfulness practice. This is where you focus on the sounds, sights, smells, or feel of the present moment. Case in point: Participating in a 10-minute brisk walk or meditation was shown to help people shake off fatigue (low energy is associated with a low mood), according to researchers at The University of Mississippi. Those in the meditation group also found that their overall mood improved, possibly because mindfulness helps people release bottled-up tension. 

However, it’s possible to weave mindfulness into your day during outdoor exercise. For instance, you might take a walk and leave your earbuds home (so, no podcasts or music today). While out there, you can shift your attention to the sounds of the birds chirping in the early morning or pay attention to the way the flowers are starting to blossom on the trees. You might focus on the feeling of the cool morning air. And when your mind begins to wander to those harried thoughts of your to-do list that day or replaying a harsh conversation between you and a friend, you’d let that thought float on by and return your attention to the present without judgment. Then, return to your day with a renewed sense of calm and a get-it-done attitude, of course.

RELATED: The Ultimate Guide to Meditation 

Top Exercises For Brain & Mental Wellness

To boost your brain, focus on aerobic exercise. Workouts that increase your aerobic capacity have been shown to improve executive function (mental skills related to planning, focus, and goal-oriented executing tasks) and increase cortical thickness (a factor related to intelligence) in adults, per a randomized clinical trial in the journal Neurology.

That doesn’t necessarily mean you have to go for a run or ride your bike (it can!), but do something that elevates your heart rate. Many strength-based or HIIT workouts will leave you out of breath, just like running around your neighborhood.

 Any type of activity that fits with your schedule and ability is important for your physical and mental wellness. And while your workout might be indoors, if possible, try to get outside for daily movement, too. Being in nature among green spaces has been found to trigger a mood boost, according to research in People & Nature. A walk to an urban park, around your neighborhood, or even sitting outside to enjoy some fresh air during your lunch break can all count.

Final Thoughts 

Exercise is not only good for lifting your mood, but it’s beneficial for your brain, too. For the biggest benefits, make sure to incorporate cardiovascular exercise into your routine, which counts as anything that makes you breathless. Also, plan outdoor exercise and activity, too, as being in nature is refreshing and restorative.