When we think about physical exercise, we have a tendency to relate it to our bodies getting leaner, fitter and building up our muscles. But perhaps what is less known are the effects simply moving our body can have on our most important organ, the brain. This article is going to touch on three key psychological benefits of exercise. The studies referred to throughout are presented at the end.
ENHANCED MENTAL WELLBEING
The most prominent benefit that physical exercise offers for our mental wellbeing is the release of feel-good brain chemicals, like endorphins, which have a significant effect on our mood, emotions, thoughts, and behaviours. When engaging in exercise, the body bumps up the production of endorphins which triggers an overall positive feeling in the body and mind. You may have already experienced that relaxing feeling after a good run, often referred to as “runner’s high”. This experience is usually attributed to the burst of endorphins released during and after exercise.
Endorphins are one of the many neurotransmitters that determine how we think and feel about certain situations. When these are activated during exercise, they trigger the release of chemicals throughout the body, which not only help us get through the activity at hand, but improve our general mood. Two of the most prominent chemicals include:
- Dopamine – Plays an important role in memory formation and is involved in helping us feel pleasure and reward. This is why we are often more motivated to engage in activities which provide us with dopamine.
- Serotonin – Influences learning, memory, and happiness. Low serotonin has been associated with many mental health conditions, including anxiety, depression and sleep problems.
It is no surprise to hear that studies have shown that people who exercise regularly tend to report a greater sense of well-being, feel more energetic throughout the day, sleep better at night, have sharper memories, and feel more relaxed and positive about themselves and their lives. Recent studies have provided evidence that physically active people tend to have lower rates of anxiety and depression than sedentary people. In fact, exercise is now regularly prescribed as a form of treatment (alongside medication) for these mental disorders.
Exercise can also provide stress relief for your body while imitating effects of stress, such as the flight or fight response, and helping your body and its systems practise working together through those effects. This can also lead to positive effects in your body — including your cardiovascular, digestive and immune systems — by helping protect your body from harmful effects of stress.
WHEN WE MOVE, WE THINK
You may have already been aware of the profound link between physical exercise and mental wellbeing, as outlined above. However, some of the lesser-known benefits of physical exercise are the effects on brain health, learning and cognitive functioning. Empirical studies have found that time spent engaged in physical exercise can directly result in enhanced attentional processes, creative thinking, better working memory, and increased learning and cognitive performance. Reflecting on your experience of exercise, do some of your best ideas come to you when you are exercising? Have you thought of a solution to an ongoing issue? This is the power of moving our bodies.
Furthermore, physical exercise can result in long-term, meaningful, structural changes to the brain. In particular, exercise has been found to significantly affect the hippocampus, a brain region central to learning and memory. For example, a study focusing on older adults found that a 1-year aerobic exercise intervention increased the hippocampal volume by 2%, and declined in those who did not take part in the intervention. Thus, physical exercise has been lauded as a prevention tool for cognitive decline linked to ageing, reduced risk of developing dementia, and an improved overall quality of life.
What the information so evidently illustrates, is the intrinsic link between the mind and the body. While many people may separate our physical body from our everyday thoughts, the mind and body are continually working in tandem. This means that our thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and attitudes can positively or negatively affect our physical functioning. In other words, our minds can affect how healthy our bodies are and vice versa! To put learning back in the picture, briefly reflect on your education experience, or a recent occupational training programme – was your experience focused on learning predominantly through cognition? I presume yes. Recent discoveries suggest this traditional view of learning, which views the mind and body as fundamentally separate in the learning process, are inadequate. Rather, deep, meaningful, and prolonged learning experiences are facilitated by fusing both the mind and body. Ultimately, when we are moving, we are thinking.
THE BENEFITS OF CHALLENGING YOURSELF
Finally, physical exercise is a fantastic (and relatively inexpensive) way to challenge ourselves and push us out of our daily comfort zone. Though what is deemed a physical challenge to one person (e.g. 10km run) maybe considered the norm to another, the benefits we reap remain the same. There are plenty of anecdotal and scientific findings which suggest that following successful engagement with physical challenges, participants can experience an enriched sense of self-confidence, resilience, and self-esteem.
The primary pathway in which people experience a stronger sense of self is through mastery experiences. As the renowned and influential psychologist Albert Bandura postulated, mastery experiences are the most powerful means of creating a strong, resilient sense of self. There is no better way to start believing in one’s ability to succeed than to set a goal, persist through challenges on the road to goal-achievement and enjoy the satisfying results. Once a person has done this frequently enough, they come to believe that sustained effort and perseverance through adversity will serve a purpose in the end; belief in one’s ability to succeed will grow. This in turn builds confidence and as Professor Ian Robertson says: (Neuroscientist and Author of How Confidence Works)
“Confidence is not something you are born with, but something that can be learned”
My ongoing research focuses on exploring the psychological benefits of engaging in physical activities that expose people to physical and psychological challenges. Our findings support previous theories and suggest engaging in challenging experiences can positively affect a person’s sense of self, lead to the acquisition of new skills and competencies, create stronger group affiliation and connections, and change personal attitudes and perspectives. Perhaps of greatest significance is the data extracted from qualitative interviews, which indicate that these desirable personal changes are not fixed to the specific contexts where they are gained, rather, they are transferable and can be used to better ourselves across different areas of our lives.
This research is funded and supported by The Leadership High (TLH). (www.theLeadershipHigh.com) A company who embraces the assertion that physically challenging experiences can not only have a positive and meaningful impact on your physiology, but also your psychology. The Leadership High work with leaders and teams in pursuit of better by making confidence a habit.
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Professor Ian Robertson. (2021). Author of How Confidence Works