The psychological benefits of exercise

posted by stevewatson77 September 23, 2017 0 comments
psychological benefits of exercise

The positive physiological effects of exercise are widely understood. The majority of people are aware of the cardiac and metabolic benefits that come with regular exercise. Many are also aware of the benefits exercise has on the body’s endocrine system. Exercise is a fundamental necessity for the health longevity of human beings, but do all these physiological benefits cast a shadow over the psychological benefits of exercise?

Primitively we as a species relied on our physical prowess to hunt and gather, in order to provide energy (calories) to survive. However with the rapid advancement of technology and mechanisation, the reliance on spending energy to get food has become redundant. Many of us can now simply jump in the car and to the supermarket or have food delivered directly to where we live. This is compounded by modern industry placing far less reliance on physical exertion to earn your livelihood. Most jobs now are sedentary. Many of us who live in the developed world could go through life without any real need for physical exertion.

depression, anxiety, exercise

From a statistical, epidemiological standpoint, we can see the detrimental impact this has had on the western health epidemic with obesity rates in the United States now exceeding 30% in 25 states according to data published in August 2017 on

Stats such as this often mean that physiological decline often takes the lime light when examining the impacts of a world less reliant on exercise. However something less considered is how a modern day sedentary lifestyle may be impacting psychological well-being?

Obesity and obesity related disease are not the only ailments rapidly increasing. Rates of depression and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) are also on the up.

Hidaka’s 2012 study examined both the rates at which depression is increasing, along with a review of evidence as to potential causation.

The study aptly titled ‘Depression: a disease of modernity’ found that not only were rates of depression on the increase, but the disease was inextricably linked with the level to which a society was modernized, using GDP as a quantitative measure of modernization.

The study also eludes to the paradoxical impact such modernization has on a society from a psychological standpoint.

On a macroscale, the society looks to be thriving, based on economic markers, however once the lens becomes focused on those living within the society, and what they’re doing day-to-day the picture is far less healthy, literally.

Some things are unavoidable for some of us to an extent. Many of us must work 9+ hours a day, sitting in-front of a monitor. Some degree of emotional stress at certain points in life are also inevitable. However what can be done to untangle these lifestyle patterns that may be leading to lessened psychological health?

Physical and emotional suffering doesn’t need to be the trade off for technological and economical betterment. However it’s important to firstly understand why exercise is a necessity – now more than ever – to off-set the modern day lifestyle.

Instead of viewing exercise as a burden and an additional strain to ones day, it’s important to change the consciousness that individuals and society has towards exercise as a not only physiological remedy, but also a treatment for improving psychological well-being.


What happens to the brain when you exercise?

Moment-to-moment the human body and mind is being rebuilt, programmed by its environment and stresses it’s placed under (or avoids).

There’s constant hormonal fluctuations influencing both body and mind in that moment and the health status we then go onto develop into the future.

The good news is we can make conscious efforts in our lives to place ourselves in environments that evoke positive response and therefore strive for a more positive future.

One of the most effective ways of doing this is through exercise. Exercise is so effective at bringing out states of psychological well-being because it releases serotonin, endorphins and dopamine:


Serotonin –
is a naturally occurring chemical that is produced by the nerve cells within the body.

Serotonin is constructed with the amino acid tryptophan.

Serotonin influences many regular day-to-day activities, including sleeping and eating, along with reducing anxiety and depression.

Serotonin deficiencies are often treated with SSRIs (selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors), however these can often come with unwanted side effects.

Exercise – aerobic exercise in particular – however is a highly effective natural way to boost serotonin levels with the central nervous system (CNS), with several studies identifying exercise as an effective means of elevating serotonin uptake and relieving symptoms of depression (Dimeo et al. 2001; Dey, 1994).

Serotonin levels within the CNS increase during intense aerobic exercise because both branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) and tryptophan (the precursor for serotonin) compete for the same carrier membrance that makes up the blood-brain barrier. Because BCAAs are mobilised as an energy source during exercise it allows for more tryptophan to enter this region and up-regulate serotonin (Gandevia 2001).

Dopamine – interacts and has influence on the brain cells.

Dopamine is classed as a neurotransmitter: chemical messengers engaging various parts of the brain.

Dopamine is produced by two regions of the brain called the ventral tegmental area and the substantia nigra.

Dopamine is released into the brain to both initiate sound and movement and also informs the brain when you receive a reward such as your favourite food or being reacquainted with a loved one. This ‘feel good’ reward system is what can turn people into drug addicts and the feeling of ‘love’.

Dopamine can create a physical addiction to something extrinsic to you and when you’re in the presence of that ‘thing’ it makes you feel great!

In the same way, exercise has the ability to bring about a positive psychological sense of well-being and can actually – in doing so – cultivate a real desire to exercise. Just be careful not to develop an exercise addition!…

are neurotransmitters which engage the nervous system. There have been 20 different types of endorphins found to be within the body.

The pain reducing, euphoric properties of endorphins is due to the neurotransmitters engagement with the opiate receptors in the brain.

Endorphin production is upregulated by stress amounts equal to the amount placed when exercising. This has led to the common saying: “runners high”.


Anyone who exercises with intensity knows that the synergistic effects of up-regulating serotonin, dopamine and endorphins is phenomenal. And the great thing is that it’s natural and something completely under your own control.

exercise and dopamine

Exercise for psychological conditioning

Further to the neurochemical adaptations that lead to psychological well-being; exercise is also a great way to engrave perseverance, determination and will-power into your personality.

Irrespective of your goal (be it morally sound) success will be dependent on these personality traits. No goal worth achieving comes overnight with a distinct lack of hard work and discipline.

Exercise provides a platform to develop these key skills in a controlled, self-induced environment. So next time you’re in the gym doing a cardio session, be sure not to cultivate the kind of personality that stops running 10 minutes before you were truly ready to finish. Instead work to developing a personality that perseveres through the hardship for an improved future.


Dimeo et al. 2001. Benefits from aerobic exercise in patients with major depression: a pilot study. British Journal of Sports Medicine. 35 (2).

Dey.S 1994.Physical exercise as a novel antidepressant agent: Possible role of serotonin receptor subtypes. Physiology and behaviour. 55 (2).

Gandevia SC: Spinal and supraspinal factors in human muscle fatigue. Physiol Rev 2001, 81:1725–1789. A comprehensive review of the neural mechanisms that contribute to central fatigue.

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