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The Fitness Zone

What happens To Your Brain When You Exercise?
May 24, 2016 | by Kate Noble

Your alarm goes off at 5:30am and your immediate thought is whether you get up and train as planned, you know that if you do you will feel 100 times better, but why is that? We have tracked down Kate Noble, eCoach in WA, to share what effects exercising has on our brain!

The real reason that we feel GREAT when we exercise, get our blood pumping and our muscles firing is that it makes our BRAIN feel good! Building muscles and conditioning the heart and lungs are essentially just side effects as there is a biological relationship between the body, the brain, and the mind.

It can be said that the 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 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.

Getting into the nitty gritty; exercise balances levels of serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine which are important neurotransmitters that traffic in thoughts and emotions. Serotonin influences mood, impulsivity, anger, and aggressiveness. Norepinephrine amplifies signals that influence attention, perception, motivation, and arousal. Dopamine improves mood and feelings of wellbeing.

Unlike neurotransmitters that carry out signalling, neurotrophins such as BDNF(brain-derived neurotrophic  factor) build and maintain the cell circuitry - the infrastructure itself.

BDNF gives the synapses 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! It is like the fertilizer that encourages neurons to connect to one another and grow, making it vital for neuroplasticity and neurogenesis.

While aerobic exercise elevates neurotransmitters and creates new blood vessels that pipe in growth factors and spawns new cells, complex activities put all that material to use by strengthening and expanding networks.

The more complex the movements, the more complex the synaptic connections. Learning difficult movements or carrying out exercise that require high levels of coordination, such as learning a choreographed dance, will further improve the quality and speed of the signals and as a result will improve brain plasticity.

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 the entire human lifespan, and exercise is conceivably the most compelling way to ensure your brain’s continued growth and rejuvenation.

“Physical fitness is not only one of the most important keys to a healthy body; it is the basis of dynamic and creative intellectual activity.” John F. Kennedy


Kate is a Fitness eCoach at the Australian Institute of Fitness in WA, as well as a Personal Trainer and Group Exercise Instructor.

This content is not intended to be used as individual health or fitness advice divorced from that imparted by medical, health or fitness professionals. Medical clearance should always be sought before commencing an exercise regime. The Institute and the authors do no take any responsibility for accident or injury caused as a result of this information.

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