What Happens to Your Brain When You Exercise?

Dec 14, 2020 | by AIF

Your alarm goes off at 5:30am and your immediate thought is ‘Do I hit the snooze button, or do I get up and train as planned?’. You know that if you do the latter, you’ll feel 100 times better and get your day off to a great start. But why is that? AIF Coach, Kate Noble looks at the effect of exercise on the brain.

The Body and Brain Connection

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. And yes, there is a difference between 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. To keep our brains at peak performance, therefore, our bodies need to work hard.

Protein for the Brain

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.

Enhancing Neurotransmitter Function

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.

Building the Brain’s Infrastructure

Exercise also affects the activity of the neurotrophin BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor). Unlike neurotransmitters that carry out signalling, neurotrophins such as BDNF 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, gathering in reserve pools near the synapses and being unleashed when the blood starts pumping! Think of it as the fertiliser that encourages neurons to connect to one another and grow, making it vital for neuroplasticity and neurogenesis.

Complex Activities for Brain Growth

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 requires 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.

Move More, Think Better

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.

In the words of John F. Kennedy, “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.”


Kate has extensive industry experience, working as a Personal Trainer, Group Exercise Instructor and Coach at the AIF.



At the Australian Institute of Fitness (AIF), we are no stranger to the competitive and evolving nature of the fitness industry. That’s why we remain the #1 fitness educator since 1979. We continuously raise the bar by providing the best education and resources through dynamic and hybrid training methods that mould to your lifestyle. We are strong believers in evidence over fads, so you can be assured your training with AIF will solidify your career for the long-term.

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