This is Your Brain on Exercise

Regular workouts are worth a lot more than a six-pack. Getting physical can also help your mind.

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Photo by Dave and Les Jacobs/Getty Images

We all know the slew of physical benefits that come along with staying active. From a healthier heart to stronger muscles, it’s no surprise that the CDC recommends adults get at least two and a half hours of moderate cardio and two days of muscle strengthening every week. But the perks of exercise extend far beyond the body. It turns out, there’s also a long list of mental benefits of breaking a sweat.

Exercise may protect the brain from stress-induced depression.

New research from the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden sought to explore the connection between exercise and why it helps us stress less. When researchers tested mice, they found that those with high levels of a protein found in well-trained muscles also had more KAT enzymes, stress busters that help metabolize the stress chemical kynurenine, Forbes reports. In other words, the study suggests that those with well-exercised muscles are better at ridding their body of the stress that can later lead to depression.

“Our initial research hypothesis was that trained muscle would produce a substance with beneficial effects on the brain. We actually found the opposite: well-trained muscle produces an enzyme that purges the body of harmful substances. So in this context the muscle’s function is reminiscent of that of the kidney or the liver,” Jorge Ruas, principal investigator at the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology at the Karolinska Institutet, told a university publication.

It can get your creative juices flowing.

Not only can exercise make you less stressed and happier overall, but it can also help spark ideas. “I come up with my best ideas when I’m running,” team runner with The North Face and a Ph.D. candidate focusing on nutrition and exercise physiology Stephanie Howe says.

But you don’t necessarily have to run a 100-mile race like Howe to reap the benefits. Stanford University researchers found that even doing something as simple as walking at a comfortable pace may increase creativity by as much as 60 percent.

Exercise may keep your brain sharp.

Research published in Nature suggests that people who exercise more have increased gray matter volume in their brains. Gray matter houses nerons important to memory. Other research found more gray matter in the frontal, temporal, and parietal cortexes of the brains of more physically fit people. 

"The frontal areas of the brain have a lot to do with what people call higher-level cognition," psychologist Arthur F. Kramer of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign told ABC News. The frontal lobe is where we make decisions, problem-solve, control behavior, and regulate emotion. The temporal is responsible for memory, emotions, hearing, learning and languages, and the parietal is for processing sensory information and where letters come together to make words and our words form thoughts.

Exercise offers a serious self-esteem boost.

Working out on a regular basis not only changes your physical appearance, but it also affects the way you see yourself. Seventy percent of those who exercise every day feel good about their physical appearance, while only 50 percent of those who exercise one day a week report the same, according to a Gallup poll earlier this year. That means hitting the pavement multiple times a week can seriously increase your confidence.

“It’s when you’re suffering that you find yourself and learn to push through. It’s a confidence boost,” says Howe. “People who don’t exercise regularly don’t get to the point where they feel that. Otherwise everyone would [exercise.]”