Your Brain On Exercise

The mental health benefits of exercise

Woman exercising

Let’s be honest, we are not the same person we were going into quarantine. Quarantine has affected us all differently. For some this was a well-needed recharge, and for others this was devastating. I know I’ve questioned my mental health more in the last six months than I have in my entire life, but overall I have remained positive and happy. What really made a difference in my mental health journey was participating in regular physical activity and exercise. It gave me a boost of energy when I was feeling down, allowed me to process my emotions and it gave me sense of control over my situation. As a certified exercise physiologist, I understand the psychological and physiological benefits of exercise and my goal is to share with you why participating in regular physical activity and exercise can boost your mental health.

How exercise directly affects the brain

  • Helps the body fuel the production of endorphins and eukephalins. These are your happy hormones; they can help make problems seem more manageable. The focus on completing the exercise session can provide a distraction and/or coping mechanism which can help decrease our stress levels and provide us with a sense of control.
  • Increases the body’s temperature which is known to provide comfort and a state of balance. This provides an opportunity for mastery and competence, which can build one’s self-esteem. A strong self-esteem creates a link about how we feel about ourselves which can boost our mental health.
  • Encourages social connections. Those connections increase our feeling of belonging and purpose. Belonging is a primal need and is fundamental to our happiness and well-being. We are social animals who thrive in networks of people.
  • Improves dopamine receptor sensitivity over time, signaling the brains reward system. Our brain recognizes something important is happening and it’s worth remembering and repeating, so we end up looking forward to the next exercise session because it’s rewarding. 
  • Regular exercise strengthens the cardiorespiratory system providing more blood to the brain. Better blood supply improves the health of the neurons (neurons transmit information throughout the body) by feeding them oxygen, nutrients, neurotrophic factors, and neurohormones. This supports the neurons the ability to create connections and grow. Neurotrophic factors support the growth and survival of neurons while neurohormones transport chemical messages throughout the body.
  • So how much is enough to see the psychological benefits of exercise? Honestly, almost any movement is better than nothing. Research does show that moderate-to vigorous exercise will provide the most psychological and physiological benefits to the body. With the quarantine not looking like it’s coming to an end any time soon, maybe this is the year to try something new. Consider trying outdoor activities that allow for physical distancing and fresh air such as snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, downhill skiing/snowboarding, ice skating and even winter hiking.

However, if you want specific guidelines, the Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology (CSEP) recommends that adults participate in 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous aerobic activity a week plus muscle strengthening activities using major muscle groups twice a week. They also recommend several hours of light physical activity such as standing and walking on a daily basis as the average Canadian adult is sedentary 9.5 hours a day. To find more information on Canada’s Physical Activity guidelines visit to see the most up to date research on Physical Activity and Exercise. 

IMPACT Magazine November Issue Digital Cover

IMPACT Magazine’s November Edition

RBC Olympic hopefuls Hayley Daniels, Sam Effah and Kate Wright as our inspiring cover athlete stories!⁠ Get prepared for winter running, making movement part of your workday, and exploring great hikes near Calgary and Vancouver.

Read this story in our November 2020 Digital Edition.