The Non-Physical Benefits of Exercise

By Sarah Zhang on at

Exercise is good for you. Perhaps less obvious is all the ways physical exercise is also good for your brain; how it improves memory, creativity, mood, and more. So even if you aren't looking to brag about marathon times or show off the body of a Greek god, you still have plenty of reasons to get off your butt.

Of course, it totally makes sense that the mind and body are not two distinct entities. Your brain is a physical organ, just like the muscles, lungs, and bones that obviously benefit from regular exercise. A growing body of research has chronicled how exercise triggers a cascade of chemical changes in the brain. Here are some reasons to exercise for your mental health.

Improve Your Memory

As a lazypants blogger, I can personally attest to the desire to minimise my physical exertion during moments of mental exertion. This usually means sitting in the plushy confines of my couch (nearly) all day. But science tells us this is not quite the way to go.

Take a small but highly cited study from 2007, where neurologists got 27 healthy adults to cram vocabulary words. Right before they learned the words, the volunteers were asked to either sprint, jog, or rest. The "high-impact aerobic sprints" group could recall new vocabulary words better, even after eight months. The sprinters also had higher levels of a chemical called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that spurs the develop of new neurons and promotes the survival of existing ones.

There's also evidence that regular exercise can help improve memory in general, not just the things you learned right after exercising. Decades earlier, scientists made an intriguing finding in mice: more new neurons appeared in a memory area of the brain when mice were allowed to exercise on running wheels. BDNF seems to be responsible for the difference. Intriguingly, this seems to be true in humans as well. More recent research, in elderly women specifically, found that regular brisk walking or weight lifting can improve verbal and spatial memory.

Deal With Stress and Anxiety

We can admit it: exercise is hard. It's tiring and painful and intensely uncomfortable most of the time. But that's also why it's good for your brain.

Exercise helps train your brain to cope with stress. Whether you're sweating because you've just sprinted two miles or because you have a huge presentation you can't fuck up, your body exhibits the same physical and chemical response. If your body (and brain) regularly deals with this "stress", it's better at resetting itself back to equilibrium. Exercise can, for example, help people who get panic attacks learn not to become distressed when they're sweating and their heart is racing.

One clue as to what's happening in the brain comes from research into a neurotransmitter called galanin. Regular exercise seems to switch on genes that increase galanin, which in turn regulates norepinephrine, the chemical that sets off the body's stress response. Scientists aren't totally sure how it works yet, but here is a stockphoto I found that's probably pretty accurate.

The Non-Physical Benefits of Exercise

Be in a Better Mood

"Runner's high" is definitely not just for runners, despite the fact they've somehow unfairly monopolised the term. As you might know, the source of runner's high is endorphins, neurotransmitters that block pain and generally make you feel good.

More specifically, endorphins belong to a class of neurotransmitters called opioid neuropeptides, and the resemblance to "opiate" is no accident. Painkillers (and illegal drugs) work by basically mimicking endorphins.

The emotional boost from exercise is not just temporary either, and it may help offset depression. A study with patients taking the popular antidepressant Zoloft, for example, found that those who also following an aerobic exercise regimen showed greater improvement than those just taking the drug.

Be More Creative

Remember how learning vocabulary words seems to get easier right after exercise? The same seems to be true of thinking creatively, adding more evidence that getting your blood pumping boosts brain function.

One study asked 63 participants to take a standard creativity test (brainstorm alternative uses for a cardboard box or tin can) after an aerobic workout, aerobic dancing, or TV watching. As you might expect, the more active participants fared better at creative uses for boxes and cans. In general, exercise puts you in a state of arousal (not sexually, you Freudians out there), where you're more alert and active; the opposite of mind-numbing TV.

Top image: Warren Goldswain/shutterstock