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How does Exercise Improve Mental Health?

Updated on August 27, 2012

Exercising to achieve a healthy brain!

"Ashes to ashes
Dust to dust
Oil those brains
Before they rust."

Anonymous (from A. Nonny Mouse Writes Again! by J. Prelutsky, 1993)

It's a well known fact that even a little exercise is benefical for health. We know for instance that exercise helps us to keep to a desired weight and our bodies in good shape. But what about the most important part of the body - our brain? Initially exercise tones up the body in general, making it fitter and healthier. By extension this will also lead to benefits for the brain. We'll have a look at how this is achieved and why it can help to improve mental health.

Excercise helps to keep the brain circulation healthy.
Excercise helps to keep the brain circulation healthy. | Source
Exercise keeps the nervous system and it's cells healthy.
Exercise keeps the nervous system and it's cells healthy. | Source
Neurotransmitters increase during exercise. (diagram showing neurotransmitters crossing to another nerve ending. The space in between is called a synapse.)
Neurotransmitters increase during exercise. (diagram showing neurotransmitters crossing to another nerve ending. The space in between is called a synapse.) | Source

Brain circulation and exercise

Weighing only approximately three pounds, the brain is a complex organ made up of different parts. Each part has a unique function, but they also work in harmony with each other. The brain is protected firstly by the skin on our scalp and then the skull. Underneath there are three shields of membrane called the meninges. The brain is further protected and given support by cerebrospinal fluid that circulates around it. This fluid also plays a major part in allowing waste matter to be carried over the blood-brain barrier, to be excreted.

The brain, as with any other organ in the body, needs to have a blood supply in order to work properly. During exercise, our heart beat increases, this also improves the circulation through the brain. The blood delivers essential nutrients, oxygen and fuel to the brain. In addition it removes waste products for excretion. Therefore any kind of exercise that helps to keep the circulation in good health also has positive positive effect on the brain.

Research carried out by Duke University, NC, USA has found that exercise also has an anti-depressant affect on the brain. Further research demonstrated that exercise improved the mental health and alertness in elderly people and could also have a significant effect on dementia.

So how does exercise improve how you feel?

One of the first theories to come forward a few years ago was that endorphins are triggered in large numbers when we exercise.

What are endorphins?

These are very small protein molecules produced by the nervous system and other parts of the body. One important function of endorphins is that they work hand in hand with sedative receptors in your nervous system to create natural pain relief. Endorphins also give a 'high' or euphoric feeling - this is one of the main reasons that people take part in dangerous sports - thousands of endorphins are released causing euphoria. Endorphins also have natural sedative properties that help to reduce anxiety and stress.

At the moment about twenty different forms of endorphin have been found in the human body. Beta-endorphin seems to be the most powerful. It is also interesting to note that physical exercise is not the only way to increase endorphin release. Activities such as meditation, deep breathing and even laughing have also shown to increase their numbers. Endorphins are also very good for our health - one of the few things that feels but is also beneficial. However, endorphin production in the body is very complex and researchers believe that other processes and chemicals could also be involved in the 'feel good' factor.

These other chemicals are the neurotransmitters:

  • serotonin
  • dopamine
  • norepinephrine

These neurotransmitters also play a part in elevating mood. During exercise the brain is stimulated to produce large amounts of these chemical messengers and this induces a 'feel good' factor similar to endorphins. Anti-depressant medications that many people require, are thought to boost the numbers of these neurotransmitters.

Another factor that plays a part in elevating mood and also keeping the brain healthy is BDNF, (brain-derived neurotrophic factor). This is a substance that has been found in the brain and it's level increases during exercise. BDNF elevates mood, but it's main function is to help brain cells remain healthy and live longer. So basically when we exercise the health of our brain increases. This in turn not only elevates our mood, but a healthy brain copes with strains and stresses much better.

So now we can see how physical exercise can improve the health of the brain. However, there are other types of exercise that are just as important - mental exercise.

Exercising helps to keep all areas of the brain healthy.
Exercising helps to keep all areas of the brain healthy. | Source
Mind excercises help to keep your brain healthy.
Mind excercises help to keep your brain healthy. | Source

mental exercises for brain health

We all know that our brain is a specialised and highly complex organ. It's obvious then that this fantastic creation of nature will need more than physical exercise to keep it healthy, balanced and sharp. This is where mental brain exercises come in. Even if you only practice for 10 minutes a day the benefits for long lasting mental health are numerous.

The brain is an organ that improves and grows with stimulation and work. Not only that, but a brain that is used, motivated and invigorated protects against age-related decline and other illnesses that can affect brain functions. The brain has an amazing capacity to continue growing, developing and to a certain extent repair itself. Researchers also found that even in old age it's possible to develop more neurons. Although there are illnesses that cause deterioration in brain functions, most of the loss of brain faculty comes from inactivity and lack of stimulation. There is an old saying but one that is very true and apt for the brain - "use it or lose it!"

Scientists have discovered that when the brain is used through activities such as creativity, problem solving and so on, not only are the neurones strengthened, but the synapses - spaces between nerves - also increase so expanding the brains power and potential.

There are various kinds of brain exercises that you can do. Depending on what you enjoy or what you feel you need to improve on, you can chose from:

  • memory games
  • brain creativity exercises
  • brain reflection tests
  • brain stretching
  • brain stimulation
  • spatial intelligence games
  • cognitive training

These are just a few of the exercises that you can do and you only have to practice for usually a minimum of 10 minutes daily. Health, including mental well being, doesn't just happen. For most of us we have to work at it in order to feel our very best. Taking 10 minutes each day is not a lot when you think about the benefits our hard working brains deserve.

Main parts of the brain and basic functions

Part of the brain
Main function
This is the largest, uppermost section of the brain divided into two hemispheres - the right and left cerebral hemispheres. This area contains all parts of the brain except the pons, medulla and cerebellum. The two hemispheres come together again deep down inside the brain, joined by a bundle of nerves called the corpus callosum.The surface of the cerebrum is covered in convoluted areas called 'gyri' that help to greatly increase the brain's surface area.
Within the cerebrum we have the cerebral cortex
The cortex is divided into four main parts with differing functions.
Cerebral cortex - frontal lobe
Regulates functions such as - decision making, problem solving. It also controls consciousness, emotions and intentional behaviour.
Cerebral cortex - parietal lobe
This area not only receives but processes any sensory input from the rest of the body. It is also here where words are formed and words are transformed into thoughts.
Cerebral cortex - temporal lobes (left and right)
Regulates hearing, language, emotions, learning and memory.
Cerebral cortex - occipital lobe
In this area information that is related to our vision is processed here.
Primary Motor Cortex
Any voluntary movements the body makes is controlled from here.
Primary Sensory Cortex
Any sensory information from what the body experiences is processed here and is part of the parietal lobe mentioned earlier.
This area has many functions inlcuding - balance and posture, it initiates movement and timing of movement. It also regulates the force and range of movements as well as the steadiness.
Brain Stem
This area connects the spinal cord to the brain. It has control of functions such as breathing, heart rate, sleeping and eating.

Brain Exercises

Were you aware that general exercising could have physical and mental benefits for the brain?

See results

Exercises for the brain

Will you be more likely to ensure that you exercise your brain after reading this hub?

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Submit a Comment
  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    6 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi toknowinfo - LOL!! My head was aching just trying to understand enough to put it down in the hub - so my greymatter was well exercised as well!! Many thanks for the visit and leaving a comment - greatly appreciated!

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    6 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi ausmedus, many thanks for stopping by and leaving such an insightful and interesting comment! Much appreciated.

  • toknowinfo profile image


    6 years ago

    Hi Helen,

    This is a great article and well put together. Thanks for a great hub to read. I feel like my brain got exercise just trying to remember all the info you packed this with.

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    6 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi VirginiaLynne, always lovely to hear from you and glad that you enjoyed the hub. I was surprised at just how much exercise may help with Alzheimer's and the other dementias as well. If there is anything that can be done to improve or ward off such a terrible illness, then it's worthwhile.

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    6 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi ausmedus, many thanks for stopping by and glad that you enjoyed the hub! Well I play strategy games on the PC and I do think they help the brain. They are also supposed to help you relax - well some of them - but most frustrate the hell out of me, so I don't think I get the 'relaxation' benefit! LOL!

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    6 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi LW - always a pleasure to hear from one of my favourite writers!! I was kind of the same in relation to exercise and the brain, but after learning the benefits of to memory etc. then It's well worth I reckon to put the effort in. I think what is great as well, is that doing puzzles etc. is a fun way to exercise the mind. It's not often that something you enjoy is actually good for you.

    Once again my friend, thank you for your wonderful comments and support - much appreciated!

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    6 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hello mperrottet, many thanks for stopping by and for leaving such a lovely comment. I agree with you entirely. I think if we put the effort in to keep our brain healthy then we will be rewarded 10 times over! Many thanks again.

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    6 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi Audrey, great to hear from you and thanks for stopping by. Glad that you enjoyed the hub and thank you for the lovely comment - much appreciated!

    I always wondered as well why I felt so good once I had made it to the top of some darn hill! I just put it down to the sense of achievement etc. But, yes when you do think about the increased circulation to the brain, it does make a lot of sense where the feel good factor comes from. Going up a hill though is my limit! I won't be going to the limit of bungi jumping or something just to get a good feeling - those folks are nuts!!!LOL!

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    6 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi Rosemay - lovely to hear from you. LOL! When I joined Hub Pages to try to get my writing back on track again, I was nervous and out of sorts at first so I don't know if my brain got any benefit in the first couple of weeks. But I would say that HP has been good for all of us in the brain cell capacity! l also learned a lot from the research and I also like this about Hub Pages - that you do learn so much either from your own research or from other hubbers.

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    6 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi Denise, lovely to hear from you. When I researched the hub I was surprised at just how much exercise does make a difference, especially when reading people's experiences on forums etc. It was an interesting subject to research and it's always great when you learn something new.

  • VirginiaLynne profile image

    Virginia Kearney 

    6 years ago from United States

    Terrific information. I've just been researching Alzheimer's and other dementias for some hubs on the subject and I've learned that exercise is one of the most important ways to prevent the onset of dementia symptoms. It is especially important to exercise in all three ways: cardio, strength and balance.

  • thelyricwriter profile image

    Richard Ricky Hale 

    6 years ago from West Virginia

    Up, useful, awesome, and interesting. Seeker, another great job on a quality hub. Great information and well written my friend. I have heard of this before but never paid much attention. I believe it is a great idea to keep the brain healthy. Anything that helps with memory loss is a big bonus. I will try some of these exercises myself since it works, can't hurt. Seeker, awesome job on this one! Take care pal.

  • mperrottet profile image

    Margaret Perrottet 

    6 years ago from San Antonio, FL

    What a beautifully constructed hub, full of good information. I'm a great believer in the benefit of exercise for mind and body, especially as you get older. Time to get back to doing the puzzles in the morning paper! Voted up, useful, interesting and shared.

  • akirchner profile image

    Audrey Kirchner 

    6 years ago from Washington

    Helen~~ WOW - great pictures---awesome analysis. I definitely think the more we exercise period the better off we are. It just stands to reason since you always feel better so it must be helping our brain, too!

  • Rosemay50 profile image

    Rosemary Sadler 

    6 years ago from Hawkes Bay - NewZealand

    A well researched article Seeker, you have put a lot of work into this, which is appreciated.

    I go walking 3 or 4 times a week so hopefully that will keep both my body and brain healthy. I do enjoy mental exercises, such as crosswords and puzzle type games and so on. I never thought of writing and reading being brain exercise but I guess it is. So all us hubbers should have pretty healthy brains mentally :) I certainly had no connection between physical exercise keeping the brain healthy so thank you.

    Voting and sharing

  • denise.w.anderson profile image

    Denise W Anderson 

    6 years ago from Bismarck, North Dakota

    Excellent hub. In my School Psychology training, we were taught the importance of physical activity in helping the brain function better, especially in students with disabilities. When information is coupled with physical activity, memory and retention increase.

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    6 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi Alastar,

    I totally agree with you. Since taking up more exercise over the past few years I have definitely felt the benefit in the old brain cells and moods certainly improve to quite a high degree that is really quite stunning what even just a little exercise can do for you! What I've found as well, is that you don't have to be constantly exercising to start getting benfits and these benefits start very quickly.

    I like the brain exercises - well except anything to do with math, which I'm crap at! But one great mental exercise - no kidding - has been Hub Pages. I think between writing, reading and responding to other folks on this site, our brains do get a great work out!!

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    6 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi Kashmir56, many thanks for the lovely comment and for stopping by - much appreciated. Glad that you found the hub useful.

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    6 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi Frank, glad that you enjoyed the hub - as always, it's a pleasure to hear from you!

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    6 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi Peanutritious, many thanks for stopping by, glad that you enjoyed the hub.

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    6 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi Natashalh, many thanks for stopping by and glad that you enjoyed the hub.

  • Frank Atanacio profile image

    Frank Atanacio 

    6 years ago from Shelton

    Thank you Seeker I was not aware of the benefits to mental health simply by excercising.. thank you for a useful hub :) bless you

  • kashmir56 profile image

    Thomas Silvia 

    6 years ago from Massachusetts

    Great well written hub with a lot of valuable information within it ! Exercise daily to help keep both body and brain healthy .

    Well done and vote up and more !!!

  • Peanutritious profile image

    Tara Carbery 

    6 years ago from Cheshire, UK

    Great information and all the more reason to get my gym gear on and go for it! Thanks!

  • Alastar Packer profile image

    Alastar Packer 

    6 years ago from North Carolina

    So glad to see this article Helen. Doing cardio for 20 minutes 4 times a week and I can certainly shill for the Mental health benefits. The circulation is a cure for keeping the blues at bay and elevating the mood, just to name a few fine things it does. Its also a mood changer for men with ED problems- at least that's what i've been told by some older gents. Nothing quite like the circulations benefits at its optimal working level. Thanks Helen, learned a lot of new info here .Those are some excello mental exercises too- my favored way is reading though.

  • Natashalh profile image


    6 years ago from Hawaii

    Wow. I was literally just deciding how to schedule my usual exercise with my new semester of classes that starts tomorrow when I saw this pop up. What a nice little added motivation!


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