How exercise impacts the brain

It’s 5 a.m. and your alarm goes off. You immediately begin the battle of whether to get up and exercise or not. You know you’ll feel better if you do, but why? This is your brain on exercise.

The reason that we feel so good when we exercise and get our blood pumping and our muscles firing is that it makes our brain feel good. Essentially, building muscles and conditioning the heart and lungs are bi-products or side effects from exercise as there is a biological relationship between the body, the brain, and the mind.

It can be said that a key point of exercise is to build and condition the brain. The relationship between food, physical activity, and learning is hardwired into the brain’s circuitry and therefore to keep our brains at peak performance, our bodies need to work hard.

The reason physical activity is crucial to the way we think and feel is because moving our muscles produces proteins that travel through the bloodstream and into the brain. The brain then responds like muscles do, growing with use and withering with inactivity.

At the risk of being too scientific but more specific – exercise balances levels of serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine, which are all important neurotransmitters that traffic thoughts and emotions. Neurotransmitters tell your heart to beat, lungs to breathe and stomach to digest. Serotonin influences mood, impulsivity, anger, and aggressiveness. Norepinephrine amplifies signals that influence attention, perception, motivation, and arousal while dopamine improves mood and feelings of well-being.

Also, heavily affected by exercise are neurotrophins. Neurotrophins are proteins secreted in the brain during exercise that can signal the survival, development and function of neurons. Neurotrophins such as BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) signal cells to survive, mature and grow. BDNF gives synapses (junctions between nerve cells) the tools they need to take in information, process it, associate it, remember it, and put it in context. It is also a necessary ingredient for making new cells where it gathers in reserve pools near the synapses and is unleashed when the blood gets pumping … with exercise! It is like fertilizer that encourages neurons to connect to one another and grow.

While aerobic exercise elevates neurotransmitters (serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine), and creates new blood vessels that pipe in growth factors (neurotrophins) and spawns new cells, complex activities like dancing, swimming and cycling put all that material to use by strengthening and expanding networks.


Everything we do, think and feel is governed by how our brain cells, or neurons connect to one another. The brain has the capacity to regenerate and grow throughout our entire lifespan, and exercise is conceivably the most compelling way to ensure your brain’s continued growth and rejuvenation.- by Angie Ferguson, Evansville Courier & Press (Indiana)

Angie Ferguson is an exercise physiologist from Fort Myers, Florida. She is a USA Triathlon Advanced Level 2 coach, Ironman Certified coach, Slowtwitch Certified coach, USA Cycling coach and has a Specialty in Sports Nutrition certification. For more training tips, read her blog at or contact her at