We may not feel like it while we’re working out and our body is telling us to stop, but exercise is good for us both physically and mentally.

Many women exercise to improve their cardiovascular health, build muscle, and improve their appearance. However, there are also benefits to exercising that are not related to physical appearance.

Scientists have been trying to understand for the past few years how exercising can improve brain function.

Regardless of your age or fitness level, studies show that making time for exercise provides some serious mental benefits.

Surprising Ways Exercise Changes Your Brain

Regular physical activity can help to improve your mood, mental health, and overall well-being.

Primes You to Connect With Others

An exercise-induced mood boost is not only found in running, but in any sustained physical activity.

Scientists have speculated that endorphins are the reason people experience a high, but new research shows that the high is actually linked to another class of brain chemicals called endocannabinoids. These are the same chemicals that are found in cannabis, and neuroscientists have described them as “don’t worry, be happy” chemicals.

The amygdala and prefrontal cortex are both areas of the brain that contain a large number of receptors for endocannabinoids. These endocannabinoids are known to reduce anxiety and induce feelings of contentment. In addition, endocannabinoids also increase the levels of dopamine in the brain’s reward system. This, in turn, leads to further feelings of optimism.

This exercise also has the added bonus of increasing the pleasure we feel when we are around other people. This can be beneficial in strengthening relationships. Many people use exercise as a way to connect with friends or loved ones. Married couples who exercise together often report feeling closer to each other later in the day. They may also feel more loved and supported.

Another study found that on days when people exercise, they report more positive interactions with friends and family. Running makes people better by improving their mood, which in turn makes them more enjoyable to be around.

Make Your Brain More Sensitive to Joy

When you exercise, it provides a low-dose jolt to the brain’s reward system which helps you feel motivated and hopeful. Over time, regular exercise will lead to higher dopamine levels and more available dopamine receptors. Exercise can relieve depression and make you feel happier.

Substance abuse not only lowers the level of dopamine in your brain, but it also reduces the number of dopamine receptors in your brain’s reward system. As a result, people who are struggling with addiction can feel unmotivated, depressed, and antisocial. Exercise has been shown to be effective in reversing these effects.

Adults who were receiving treatment for methamphetamine abuse showed an increase in dopamine receptor availability in the reward system after eight weeks of participating in an hour of walking, jogging, and strength training three times a week.

Makes You Brave

Regular physical activity has various benefits for the brain, one of which is increased courage. When a person starts a new exercise habit, it enhances the brain’s reward system, which also increases connections between areas of the brain that calm anxiety. Additionally, physical activity can modify the default state of the nervous system so that it becomes more balanced and less prone to reactions like fight, flight, or fright.

New research suggests that lactate, which is a metabolic by-product of exercise, can actually have positive effects on mental health. Lactate is released by muscles and travels through the bloodstream to the brain. Once it’s in the brain, it alters neurochemistry in a way that can reduce anxiety and protect against depression.

The act of being courageous can help us feel more brave, as the way we talk about courage uses metaphors related to the body. For example, we might say we “overcome obstacles”, “break through barriers”, or “walk through fire” to describe overcoming challenges. We also use physical metaphors when talking about supporting others, such as “carrying burdens”, “reaching out for help”, or “lifting one another”. This is how humans typically talk about bravery and resilience.

When we are going through tough times or feeling like we can’t do something, it can help to remember that we have done similar things before. Our minds automatically make sense of physical actions, so sometimes we need to do something physical to remind ourselves that we are strong enough to do whatever we’re facing.

Builds Trust and Belonging

Emile Durkheim coined the term “collective effervescence” in 1912 to describe the euphoric self-transcendence individuals feel when they move together in ritual, prayer, or work. Moving with others is one of the most powerful ways to experience joy.

Psychologists believe that producing collective joy comes from synchrony – moving in the same way and at the same time as others. This is because it triggers a release of endorphins, which is why dancers and rowers who move in sync show an increase in pain tolerance.

Producing endorphins makes us feel good, but it also helps us to bond with others. People who share an endorphin rush through a collective activity like, trust, and feel closer to one another afterward. This is a powerful way of forming friendships, even with people we don’t know, because it is a neurobiological mechanism.

The social benefits of synchronized movement can be capitalized on through group exercise. For example, getting your heart rate up makes you feel closer to the people you move in unison with, and adding music enhances the effect. Breathing in unison can also amplify the feeling of collective joy, as may happen in a yoga class.

Transform Your Self-Image

Your sense of touch comes from your body’s ability to feel movement and changes in position. This information is sent to your brain from sensors in your muscles, tendons, and joints. This is why you can feel the position of your arm and know where it is in space, even if your eyes are closed.

Proprioception is the ability to perceive your body’s movements and is sometimes referred to as your “sixth sense.” This ability helps us move through space with ease and skill and also plays a surprisingly important role in our self-concept—how we think about who we are and how we imagine others see us.

Physical accomplishments can have a big impact on how you see yourself and what you think you’re capable of.  One woman talks about a time when she was depressed and suicidal in her early 20s. She went to the gym for one last workout on the day she planned to kill herself. But then she deadlifted 185 pounds – a personal best – and realized she didn’t want to die. She just wanted to see how strong she could become. Now, five years later, she can deadlift 300 pounds.

It’s beneficial for our mental and social well-being to move around a lot, so let’s make an effort to do more of it! We’ll feel better and be happier if we do.

Other Benefits of Exercise

1. Being active increases blood and oxygen flow to the brain.

2. Exercise helps the brain to grow new blood vessels.

3. Physical activity aids in the development of new nerve cells.

4. Exercise has been shown to improve cognitive function.

5. Physical activity can help to reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

Here are five surprising ways that being active benefits your brain:

1. Being active increases blood and oxygen flow to the brain, which helps the brain to function at its best.

2. Exercise helps the brain to grow new blood vessels, which can improve cognitive function.

3. Physical activity aids in the development of new nerve cells, which can help to improve cognitive function.

4. Exercise has been shown to improve cognitive function in people of all ages.

5. Physical activity can help to reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

Reduce Stress

If you’re having a tough day at work, go for a walk or to the gym to blow off some steam.

Exercise can help reduce stress by working up a sweat and increasing concentrations of norepinephrine.

So keep sweating–it can help lower your stress and improve your body’s ability to handle any existing mental tension. Win-win!

Boost Happy Chemicals

Working hard on the treadmill for a few miles can be difficult, but it is worth it in the end.

When you exercise, your body produces endorphins, which makes you feel happier and more euphoric. According to research, people with major depression who exercise have a 22 percent higher chance of remission because endorphins circulate in their body.

This is why doctors recommend that people struggling with depression or anxiety (or even just feeling blue) set aside some time to go to the gym. A 2013 study found that exercise is just as effective as antidepressants.

It’s okay if you’re not super into going to the gym all the time. Just working out for 30 minutes a few times a week can improve your mood.

Improve self-confidence

Boosting self-esteem and improving positive self-image are some of the basic benefits of physical fitness. Regardless of weight, size, gender, or age, exercise can quickly elevate a person’s perception of their attractiveness.

Exercise is a way to stay healthy and to feel good about yourself.

Enjoy the Great Outdoors

Working out in nature can improve your self-esteem more than working out indoors. Find an outdoor activity that you enjoy, such as rock climbing, hiking, or canoeing. Taking a walk in a park or other natural area can also be beneficial for your body and mind.

As well as getting vitamin D from the sun, which can relieve depression symptoms, you should also wear sunscreen to protect yourself from the sun’s harmful rays.

You might be wondering why you would need to book a spa day when fresh air and sunshine can do wonders for your self-confidence and happiness.

Prevent Cognitive Decline

Although it may not be pleasant to think about, it is true that as we age, our brains become less clear. As aging and degenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s disease kill off brain cells, the size of the brain decreases, which in turn harms many important brain functions.

While there is no known cure for Alzheimer’s, exercise and a healthy diet may help to prevent cognitive decline that begins after age 45.

Exercise also increases the levels of chemicals that protect and prevent the degeneration of the hippocampus, a part of the brain that is important for memory and learning.

Alleviate Anxiety

Which is better at relieving anxiety, a warm bubble bath or a 20-minute jog?

The chemicals released during exercise can help people with anxiety disorders.

Doing some moderate to high intensity aerobic exercise, such as intervals, can help reduce anxiety symptoms. A small 2018 study found that people with panic disorder who did moderate to hard exercise had less anxiety than those who did light exercise.

Boost Brainpower

You don’t have to choose between being strong and being smart. Research has revealed that aerobic exercise can help to generate new brain cells and enhance cognitive function.

If you want to have a chance of being awarded a Nobel Prize, you should consider working out more often. A study from 2019 showed that increased levels of BDNF, a protein produced by the brain, can lead to better decision making, higher thinking, and improved learning ability.

Sharpen Memory

If you want to improve your memory and have an easier time learning new things, start exercising regularly.

Working out can improve your memory and learning skills by increasing the production of cells in the hippocampus.

Exercise has been shown to improve memory and thinking in people of all ages. Children’s brain development has been linked to their level of physical fitness, meaning that exercise can help improve memory and thinking in people of all ages, not just kids.

Even though it may not be as fun as playing Tag, working out can improve memory in adults as well. A study from 2006 found that running sprints improved vocabulary retention in healthy adults. Another study from 2018 found that adults performed better on memory tests after short periods of light exercise.


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About Rhoda ...

Rhoda is an award-winning dietitian, mature age model, and CEO of Sayvana Women.  

She is the creator of the Elegant Eating Solution, an affordable program that helps women avoid weight regain and feel great about themselves, without restrictive eating.

Elegant Eating is based on the science of protein leverage and follows the unique R.E.M.A.P approach to successful aging.

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