4 Amazing Things that Happen in Your Brain During Exercise

Does this sound like your typical inner monologue while exercising?

This isn’t so bad. The sun is shining, the birds are singing. I’m getting some fresh(ish) air. Life is pretty good.

Literally two minutes later…

It’s too hot/ cold/ humid {insert additional adjectives here} and I think I just heard a coyote! Why did I think this was a good idea? Aaaaaaargh! I swear that squirrel is giving me the stink eye. Excuse me for running past your precious store of nuts, Mr. Squirrel. You think I want to be out here?

Even if you love exercise and have nothing but joyful, la-la-feel-good thoughts as you float effortlessly down the sidewalk in your running shoes, keep reading. You’re about to learn some things that will make you love exercise even more.

And if you fall solidly into the paranoid squirrel-passer category, this is for you, too.

Have you ever wondered what actually happens in your brain when you trot off down the sidewalk to start your run or puff up the hill that never ends on your bike?

Scientists have only recently been able to take a look at what happens inside the brain while we exercise. Turns out there’s a lot more happening than a litany of complaints against the local wildlife.

Better living with (brain) chemicals

Not only does your brain release some helpful chemicals (neurotransmitters) during exercise, it also increases its store for future use. You’ve probably heard of endorphins a time or two. These chemicals dull pain and generally make you feel fantastic. You may have even experienced the storied “runner’s high”.

Researchers have known for some time now that our brains use large amounts of fuel (in the form of glucose or other carbohydrates) when we exercise, particularly for extended periods of time. It wasn’t until relatively recently, however, that researchers discovered why. As it turns out, our brains use this fuel to produce more neurotransmitters, including dopamine, glutamate, GABA, and serotonin. *

In other words, during exercise, your brain bulks up on the chemicals it needs for peak performance. Think of it as a tune up for your brain. And who among us couldn’t use that?

*If you’re interested, you can learn more about these neurotransmitters and what they do here.

Improved Vision

The visual cortex in the brain (the area largely responsible for vision) gets a boost during exercise. To be more specific, we become more acutely aware of our surroundings, and can even pick out details more easily. This effect continues even after completing a workout. This is great news for your drive home from the gym (and your ability to spot the flavor of the day sign at the local frozen custard place).

Time Travel

Your brain travels back in time. Well, in a way. Your brain may actually look and function as if it is years younger.

Scientists have found that exercise leads to the production of specific growth factors in the brain. Growth factors are specialized proteins that manage how cells function, including their survival, growth, travel within the body, and differentiation. (Cells move from a less specialized type to a more specialized type – like a student graduating from college, for example.)

So what do these extra growth factors do within the brain? It would seem they promote the growth of new blood vessels in the brain and make existing blood vessels healthier. Studies have also shown increases in grey matter in older exercisers. You’ll need to exercise regularly for these changes to occur in the brain, though, since they take at least a few weeks to develop.

New brain cells!

As if the helpful, feel-good, think-better, learn-more chemicals weren’t fantastic enough, our brains actually make more brain cells while we exercise!

The hippocampus, a region of the brain involved in learning and memory, manufactures brain cells, thanks in part to the extra oxygen delivered to the brain during exercise. Don’t expect to start solving the greatest questions in theoretical physics, though (unless that’s already your thing). The effect is pretty modest.

Even so, if the promise of new brain cells doesn’t make you rush to your closet and throw on your workout duds, then perhaps you don’t have enough to begin with. (I kid, I kid!)

No really, why are you still sitting there reading this? Pick your workout of choice and get to it!

4 Amazing Things that Happen in Your Brain During Exercise

2 thoughts on “4 Amazing Things that Happen in Your Brain During Exercise

  • March 31, 2018 at 5:52 PM

    Very interesting, informative and motivating!!
    As an older adult, this information will motivate me to walk farther, faster, and more often than I currently do. (Now if I can stay with the plan for longer than a nanosecond…..)

  • April 1, 2018 at 6:59 PM

    So glad it was helpful for you! Thanks for reading!


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