Excercise for Your Brain


Recent studies indicate that exercise may be as effective as antidepressant medication or psychotherapy when it comes to decreasing depression and other psychiatric symptoms; some studies even suggest that the benefits of exercise may outperform those resulting from other forms of treatments.

Several studies have found that while a single bout of exercise can improve mood immediately, its effects are not as long lasting initially as those of antidepressant medications. The good news is that a recent study conducted at the University of Vermont and presented at a meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine suggests that mood benefits of exercise can last up to twelve times longer than previously thought. After pedaling for only 20 minutes, participants showed increased mood for up to half a day.

So while medication has more immediate results in the day-to-day treatment of mood disorders, the drawback is that even when antidepressant medications are highly effective, they tend to lose efficacy over the course of treatment. It is for this reason that many studies have found the optimal course of treatment for depression to involve both medication and exercise.

Over time the effects of regular exercise outlast those of medications. John Ratey in his book SPARK: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain reports a study performed by James Blumenthal at Duke University which found that of those in remission from depression following medication treatment versus exercise, only 8 percent of the exercise group had a relapse compared with 38 percent in the medication group.

Too, exercise has proven effective in the reduction of symptoms that often remain despite antidepressant medication treatment, such as impairments in cognitive function, fatigue and insomnia. With regard to sleep, two meta-analyses (Kubitz, Landers, Petruzzello, & Han, 1996; O'Connor & Youngstedt, 1995) showed that exercise significantly increased total sleep time while also increasing the amount of more restful slow wave sleep over the deeper, less restful REM sleep.

Exercise not only alleviates symptoms associated with mood disorders, but with addiction, anxiety and attention deficit disorders.


Initially, exercise was discouraged for persons suffering from anxiety disorders, particularly those involving panic because it was believed that the increase in heart rate caused by exercise would trigger a panic attack. What we now know is that by using exercise with persons suffering from panic, the arousal induced by exercise can become a positive association, alleviating future panic. One study preformed by Brown and colleagues and published in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease (2007) used exercise with patients suffering from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and found that exercise did not trigger obsessions or compulsions but resulted in a decrease in obsessive compulsive symptom severity for up to six months and an increased feeling of well-being for 12 weeks following the treatment.


Similar findings regarding exercise and addiction have been published. For years, addiction was viewed as a moral deficiency. Today we know that the majority of persons suffering from addictions have a gene deficiency that robs them of dopamine receptors in the reward center of the brain. Less receptors lead to lower dopamine levels. When dopamine is out of balance, the brain thinks its survival is compromised. Fortunately exercise boosts dopamine and can diminish the cravings and withdrawal associated with addiction. Several studies have found that as little as 10 minutes of intense exercise can alleviate cravings.

Attention and Cognitive Functioning

Like addiction, attention is highly impacted by dopamine levels - as well as norepinephrine- in the brain. Regular exercise can increase these neurotransmitters by spurring growth of new receptors. The impact is profound not only in improving the ability to maintain attention, but in protecting our brains from cognitive decline that occurs with aging. It is well documented that the more education one has and the more socially and physically active one is, the less likely he/she is to get Alzheimer's disease or dementia.

As we age, our brains get smaller; one area particularly prone to shrinkage is the hippocampus. The hippocampus is vital to learning and forming memories. Exercise can reverse this effect of aging by forming new neurons in the hippocampus. This finding is revolutionary considering until the late 1990’s scientist did not know that the brain could regenerate itself. As Norman Doidge, MD of Columbia University so succinctly puts it in his book The Brain that Changes Itself (2007), "...physical exercise and learning work in complementary ways: the first to make new stem cells, the second to prolong their survival".

But it is not only older adults who benefit from exercise. University of Illinois scientists found that children who had higher levels of aerobic fitness were quicker on a battery of computerized flashcard tests and had better standardized test scores than their less active counterparts.

In young girls, studies show that those who play sports get better grades; are less likely to do drugs or drink; are more likely to graduate college; are more confident; have higher levels of self-esteem, and are less likely to have an unwanted pregnancy.


Interestingly, the protective effects of exercise on the brain may be greater for women than for men. Since it is well established that more women suffer from Alzheimer’s disease than men, this finding is of particular importance. One study performed by Danielle Laurin at Laval University in Quebec found that women over 65 who reported higher levels of physical activity were 50% less likely than their inactive peers- both women and men- to develop any form of dementia. Other researchers at the University of Pennsylvania found that menopausal women who participated in the most physical activity reported the lowest levels of anxiety, stress and depression.

The Prescription

So now we know that exercise protects our brains from aging, improves attention, and decreases symptoms of anxiety and depression, and decreases cravings and withdrawals associated with the addicted brain. But how much and what kind of exercise must one do to achieve such lofty outcomes?