What Exactly Happens to Your Brain When You Exercise?

Macaela Mackenzie
by Macaela Mackenzie
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What Exactly Happens to Your Brain When You Exercise?

Exercise is good for your body. We all know that. But did you know that exercise also has massive brain-boosting benefits?

Studies have shown the positive effects that physical activity can have on your mood, your sleep and even your focus at work. But until recently, scientists had been unsure exactly why it was that people who were in better shape physically tended to be in better shape mentally.

To get to the bottom of this, researchers at the UC Davis Health System conducted a study with 38 healthy volunteers and measured two specific neurotransmitters in charge of regulating messaging in the brain — a process researchers call “brain metabolism.”

In the study, published earlier this year in The Journal of Neuroscience, participants exercised on stationary bikes, hitting about 85% of their maximum heart rate. The researchers had them do this for three vigorous sessions, each lasting between eight and 20 minutes.

Immediately before and after the sessions, the researchers used an extremely detailed MRI technique to measure the amount of glutamate and GABA — neurotransmitters that drive communication between brain cells and help to regulate both physical and emotional health — produced by their brains.

They found that both neurotransmitters spiked when the participants exercised. The largest increases were found in the visual cortex, which helps us process information (think mental clarity and focus) and in the anterior cingulate cortex, which helps regulate heart rate and emotion (take mood boost, for instance).

So what, you say — we’ve all experienced that immediate endorphin boost from exercise. That’s where the learnings from the study were really interesting. The boost lasted long beyond the participants’ workouts. The end results found evidence that exercising upped the participants’ levels of glutamate and GABA even when they weren’t working out.

In other words, you can boost your long-term brain metabolism as you chase those long-term fitness goals, like running that half-marathon or meeting your weight goal.

The authors of the study even suggested that the glutamate and GABA effects could go so far as to make exercise an important part of treatment for depression and other psychiatric disorders — possibly even as an alternative to the current class of drugs that work by affecting the behavior of neurotransmitters.

Now that’s what we call a brain boost.

About the Author

Macaela Mackenzie
Macaela Mackenzie

Macaela is a writer based in New York City with a passion for all things active. When she’s not writing about the weirdest fitness trends or nutrition news, you can find her conquering her fear of heights at the rock climbing gym, hitting the pavement in Central Park or trying to become a yogi. To see Macaela’s latest work, visit macaelamackenzie.com.


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