How exercise can change the brain
Updated: Apr 30
New evidence suggests that exercise can change the brain for the better. For decades, exercise has been suggested to help people improve their health and mental well-being. Exercise is known to release “feel good” endorphins after only 20 minutes, to improve focus and to increase self-esteem. In recent years, exercise is being studied for more profound and long-term benefits. When people exercise, it rewires the brain’s capacity to feel joy, improves its ability to regulate stress hormones and can release anti-depressive acids into the blood for days after an exercise session.
The brain’s reward system, responsible for the feelings of joy and motivation, is activated by small doses of dopamine, released by dopamine receptors. Depression, anxiety and substance abuse may, in part, be due to low levels of dopamine. When we exercise, our brain increases the circulation of dopamine, which helps aid in the reduction of depressive symptoms. A study, performed by the National Library of Medicine, suggests that dopamine is increased in the brain up to 24 hours after one 20-minute exercise session (Basso & Suzuki, 2017). Making exercise a part of your regular routine can help reset the reward system by continuously activating more dopamine receptors. An exercise regimen lasting 8 weeks (at a minimum of three times a week for an hour each session), may permanently increase the dopamine receptors in our brains. As we age, our reward systems become less responsive to joy. Adults who exercise frequently have reward systems more similar to individuals aged decades younger (McGonical, 2020).
Interestingly, the "bliss" that comes after exercising is being associated not only with the release of endorphins, but with endocannabinoids. Endocannabinoids are the "feel good" emotions that marijuana imitates. So, how do endocannabinoids effect change in the brain? The amygdala and the prefrontal cortex are responsible for the regulation of emotions and are also hosts to the endocannabinoids. Increased endocannabinoids in the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex help increase feelings of optimism, love and motivation (McGonical, 2020).
Another surprising fact related to exercise is how the brain uses lactate (a metabolic acid that is the primary culprit for sore muscles) to combat depression. Recently, lactate has been found to reduce feelings of depression during the days that follow exercise. Essentially, lactate is released by the muscles, travels through the blood stream and makes its way into the brain. Once in the brain, it works to block depressive symptoms. Researchers at the University of Bristol and University of London found, "Lactate -- essentially lactic acid -- causes cells in the brain to release more noradrenaline, a hormone and neurotransmitter which is fundamental for brain function. Without it people can hardly wake up or focus on anything (University of Bristol, 2020)." This profound evidence suggests that the brain wages war against depression for days with the lactate produced by exercise.
The long-lasting benefits of exercise are clear. Commit to increasing your own intrinsic joy and motivation by making exercise a part of your regular routine. Why not go for a walk, take a bike ride or turn a room in your house into a gym? Our bodies are meant to be active, to feel good and to have fun. One of my favorite ways to stay fit is to turn on an exercise video with music playing in the background. You can access hundreds of free workouts at https://www.fitnessblender.com. You can also filter for intensity levels, the type of workout and what type of equipment you would like to use.
15 Minute Bodyweight Cardio Workout for Fat Burn and Energy Boost - Feel Good Total Body Cardio:
30 Minute Cardio Kickboxing and Abs Home Workout:
Tabata Kettlebell Workout and Abs and Obliques Workout - 45 Minute Kettlebell Training:
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McGonical, K. (2020, January 6th). Five Surprising ways exercise changes your brain, Retrieved from: https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/five_surprising_ways_exercise_changes_your_brain
Basso, J. & Suzuki, W. (2017, March 28th). The Effects of Acute Exercise on Mood, Cognition, Neurophysiology, and Neurochemical Pathways: A Review. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5928534/
University of Bristol. (2014, February 11). Lactate and brain function: How the body regulates fundamental neuro-hormone.ScienceDaily. Retrieved from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/02/140211084053.htm