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The Effects of Exercise on the Brain and Mental Health

Unfortunately, many people believe that exercise only affects physiological components such as the cardiovascular system or muscles.

However, the effects of physical activity and exercise on our brain are enormous, diverse, and still unknown to many people.

Most people start exercising for health reasons or because they want to change their appearance. Hardly anyone thinks about exercising to improve cognitive performance or to benefit their mental health.

Through exercise and movement, amazing processes take place that affect our brain. We protect our brain from age-related decay of nerve cells and cell death. We even promote the development of new brain cells and an enlargement of our hippocampus.

Our neurotransmitters and hormone levels also change positively through exercise and sport. Endorphins and serotonin contribute to a better mood, while noradrenaline and dopamine increase motivation, drive, attention, and concentration.

The following will explain in more detail the effects of exercise on the brain.

In-depth knowledge for your new & fit self.


The Role of Endorphins, Neurotransmitters and Hormones in Brain Health


Neurotransmitters are messenger substances of our brain neurons responsible for the transmission of information between nerve cells in the brain and throughout the body.

For example, serotonin promotes mood, reduces depression, and increases enjoyment of life. Dopamine, on the other hand, provides drive, motivation, hope, and better stress resistance.

Another important neurotransmitter that is increased by exercise and movement, is noradrenaline. It stimulates neuron growth, makes us alert, attentive, and more motivated.


Endorphins, on the other hand, are substances produced in the body and formed in the pituitary gland. They contribute to positive feelings, well-being, or forgetting our worries. Both endurance and strength training can stimulate the production of neurotransmitters and endorphins, but even light exercise such as walking or cycling already has positive effects.


BDNF stands for "brain-derived neurotrophic factor" and is a protein that protects and repairs neurons in the brain. BDNF not only protects and repairs our neurons but also promotes the growth of new neurons and brain cells. BDNF also regulates mood and ensures mental clarity. It is essential for a well-functioning long-term memory.

According to studies, physically active people not only have a lower risk of cognitive degeneration, but they also have a lower risk of developing depression, Alzheimer's, or dementia. This is partly attributed to BDNF through physical activities.


Physical training activates the growth hormone called IGF-1 in the muscles.

Insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) plays a crucial role in growth and development throughout the body, including the brain. A positive effects that IGF-1 has on the brain is a neuroprotective effect, meaning it helps protect neurons from damage and promotes their survival. IGF-a also promotes the growth of new neurons, a process known as neurogenesis (more about this later). Besides many other effects, IGF-a has been linked to mood regulation and mental well-being. It may have antidepressant effects and contribute to overall emotional stability.


Exercise and the Mind: Positive Effects on Brain Health

Effects on Cognition and Memory

Training leads to the growth of the hippocampus. The hippocampus is the most researched brain area, responsible for our memories, learning, memory, and cognitive performance. When we exercise, our heart rate increases, and more blood is pumped to our brain. This increased blood flow delivers more oxygen and nutrients to the hippocampus, helping it to grow and function better.

In fact, the hippocampus can grow throughout life but can also shrink again. This ability of the brain to change is also called neuroplasticity.

Improved Oxygen Supply to the Brain

Although our brain accounts for only about 2% of our body, it consumes over 20% of the oxygen and nutrients in the body. One of the most important nutrients for our brain is oxygen.

Without oxygen, both we and our brain could not survive. Increasing the heart rate and engaging in intense physical activities improves blood circulation and oxygen supply to the brain. This leads to more efficient transportation of nutrients to the brain and better absorption. Additionally, the removal of waste products also improves.

"The human brain is incredibly complex, consisting of billions of neurons (nerve cells) that communicate through trillions of connections called synapses. This complex network allows the brain to process information, control bodily functions, and generate thoughts and emotions."

Neurogenesis and Neuroplasticity

Neurogenesis refers to the formation of new brain cells. Neurogenesis is important for having a functioning long-term memory and preventing Alzheimer's disease.

Furthermore, neurogenesis improves well-being and reduces the likelihood of developing depression. Interestingly, the formation of new neurons in the brain is inhibited by the intake of trans fats, alcohol, chronic stress, and lack of sleep. However, physical activity stimulates neurogenesis through BDNF, endorphins, and serotonin, leading to neuronal plasticity.

The brain exhibits a remarkable ability to adapt and change throughout life, a phenomenon known as neuroplasticity. This means that the brain can reorganize its structure and function in response to learning, experience, injury, or disease.

Neuroplasticity underlies our capacity for learning new skills, recovering from brain injuries, and adapting to changes in our environment. It is the ability of synapses, neurons, or entire parts of the brain to change in response to experience.

Enhancement of Self-Esteem, Self-Concept, and Self-Efficacy

Meta-analyses consistently show that overall self-esteem can improve through exercise. Self-esteem is a purely subjective measure usually assessed through questionnaires with individuals. Reasons for the improvement likely include increased fitness levels, appearance, and identification with the sport.

Moreover, the so-called self-concept can be positively influenced. The self-concept encompasses all information about how a person thinks about themselves and their abilities.

Self-perception develops positively, which is beneficial for mental health.

Self-efficacy refers to the confidence and belief a person has in themselves and their actions. For example, the confidence that goals can be achieved or certain athletic performances can be accomplished.

Through experience and a positive connection to exercise, self-efficacy expectations are improved, and individuals gain stronger self-confidence.


Exercise Guidelines: How Much Is Enough?

Research clearly shows that it doesn't always have to be strenuous sessions; even light walks once a day can have positive effects on the brain.

Ideally, engaging in 150 minutes of physical activity per week is recommended, but even 10 minutes per day can have positive effects on your mental health.

The effects of training and physical activity on our brain are enormously significant but unfortunately relatively unknown. With sufficient exercise, we not only improve our physical health but also our mental performance and brain health.

In combination with a good diet and exercise, brain degeneration can be prevented. It's important to emphasize that it's never too late to start because the positive effects can manifest regardless of age.

Additionally, it's important to understand that our brain health and physiology are inseparable and constantly influence each other.

Achieve your fitness goals now through personalized guidance from your online nutritional and fitness coach.


signature Vanessa gaber


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