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Does exercise make our brains fitter?

Written by Sarah Loker

Exercising makes your physical body fitter, stronger and healthier. But what about our minds? Do our brains also get a mental workout when we move our bodies? The answer is, YES! Scientists are showing that the runner’s high and the yogi’s tranquility have profound effects on your brain. Moreover, specific physical activities can markedly alter the brain structure. Exercise has a range of wonderful benefits to our brain’s health, such as improving cognitive functioning and memory, and increasing mental resilience. Keep reading to find out more about how exercise and physical activity benefits your brain…

Putting the body under strain makes the brain perform better

When we exercise to put the body under strain, we are forcing our physical body - the muscles, joints, tendons, etc - to work harder, and with repetition this results in an increase in physical strength, flexibility, etc. But this also makes the brain perform better. And this all goes back to how we evolved - for our ancestors, running was usually when there was danger that needed to be escaped from. Physical exertion drains the blood of glucose, which is its preferred fuel. The brain enters survival mode when there is no glucose, because the brain literally thinks you are in imminent danger. This sparks a chain reaction within your brain, where brain cells generate a protective protein called BDNP (Brain-Derived Neurtrophic Factor), and this softens the connections between brain cells. This improves our ability to think, learn, and remember. New brain cells, particularly in the memory-hub of the hypothalamus, are also grown under the influence of BDNP.

Another part of the brain that has been found to respond strongly to aerobic exercise is the hippocampus. Since the hippocampus is at the core of the brain’s learning and memory systems, this finding that exercise helps fire up this part of the brain more helps explain the memory-boosting effects of cardiovascular fitness.

Exercise helps manage stress and difficult situations

When we push ourselves in exercise, we are going beyond our comfort zones, and we have to deal with the uncomfortable feelings or sensations that come with this. When we go out of our comfort zones in our workout but maintain our exercise and keep going, we are training our brains how to keep going in times of difficulty, hardship, and stress.

In a yoga practice when exploring different asanas, we are confronted with many limitations, difficulties, frustrations, fears, and challenges, which can produce rather stressful situations. Such situations affect us both physically and mentally: we tend to hold our breaths, tighten our jaws and other muscles when in a yoga pose that is challenging. And this is the same when we face challenges in life. Learning to deal with the challenges of a yoga pose in our yoga practice can help us to handle stress and difficulties in life with more ease and calmness.

Exercising trains the brain to be less reactive

This follows on from the previous point. In daily life, we encounter inconvenient, stressful and even painful situations. We tend to react by distracting our attention from the experience, or by seeking some pleasure or satisfaction, such as the TV or our phones. Mindful yoga practice that builds a tolerance to certain challenging yoga postures, where we can stay calm and centred even in moments of difficulty, can help us to be less reactive, to remain more connected to whatever situation we encounter, and to delay our automatic reaction. This boosts our tolerance to stress, and we train ourselves to respond more skillfully, rather than react automatically.

Physical exercise boosts your mood

When we workout and put the body under strain, our brain chemistry changes to support this exertion. When we are pushing the body hard, with insufficient oxygen-filled blood flow to meet the demands being placed on the physical form, muscles become acidic and painful. The brain releases endorphins to reduce this pain (think of them as your body’s homegrown morphine). Once the pain has subsided, the rebound ‘high’ occurs as the endorphins continue to flow through your system.

Regular aerobic exercise has been found to bring harmony to the brain’s chemistry, where brain cells produce more neurotransmitters GABA and glutamate, both of which are in short supply in people with severe depression. This plays a major role in regulating mood. In fact, some studies have found that exercise seemed as effective as antidepressant drugs and psychological treatments in reducing feelings of depression.

Yoga asanas, breathwork and meditation practices help to regulate our nervous systems to a relaxed, peaceful state - this is done by bringing the nervous system into the parasympathetic branch, or the rest/digest part of the nervous system. This directly opposes our stress response, or our fight/flight response. In a study where participants practiced yoga and meditation daily for 8 weeks, brain scans showed a shrinkage of part of their amygdala, a part of the brain strongly implicated in processing fear, stress and anxiety.

Here at The Studio, we are here to support not just your physical health, but your mental and emotional wellbeing too. We believe in a truly holistic approach to health and wellness, and are proud to provide a range of healing services and treatments to positively impact all areas of your health. Our group fitness and yoga classes are a wonderful way to positively impact your mental health, by working the body and the mind. Our workshops and events cover a range of activities, such as creative writing for wellbeing and art and creative therapy, as well as so much more. Head to our website to find out more about everything on offer at The Studio, Bartlow.


The Science of Living: 219 reasons to rethink your daily routine by Dr Stuart Farrimond, p157

The Psychophysical Lab: Yoga Practice and the Mind-Body Problem by Ohad Nachtomy & Eyal Shifroni, p170, p171, p179,

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