Exercise and Mental Health: 4 Benefits that Go Beyond Your Body

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While the superficial adaptations to exercise like bigger muscles or reduced bodyfat manifest slowly, and over an extended period of time, the mental health benefits of exercise like improved mood, memory, attention span, and productivity, kick in immediately, so you can start experiencing them right away!

In this article, you will learn:

1. How Exercise Can Improve Mood

A recent study titled  "Exercising at work and self-reported work performance" discovered that a work-day workout (think hitting the gym during your lunch hour), improved both perceived mood and productivity.

The researchers mention "clear implications not only for employee wellbeing but also for competitive advantage" suggesting that employers could capitalize on the benefits of working out by increasing opportunities for employees to exercise on the job.

One explanation for these powerful effects might be the naturally produced “feel good” chemicals called endorphins that your body produces when exercising.

Endogenous (ie. Internally produced) endorphins act like natural pain-killers and mood boosters without any of the side effects experienced by the use of exogenous (ie. Ingested, injected, or otherwise consumed) pain-killing drugs.

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2. How Exercise Boosts Working Memory

When you have a hard time remembering something, do you attribute it to "just getting old?"

But what if age isn't the issue after all?

In a study published in the journal Psychophysiology, researches showed that regardless of age,  a single bout of moderate exercise can have a significant impact on your ability to recall information in what's called "working memory."

Working memory  is like RAM in a computer, storing information for a short period of time, so think of exercise as an easy way to "upgrade" your memory bank!

While the exact mechanisms are still being worked out (no pun intended), it is thought that the brain-boosting effects of exercise owed, at least in part, to a compound called BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor).

Mouse studies have shown that exercise increases levels of BDNF in the brain, which in turn keeps brain cells (neurons) healthy and even stimulates the growth of new neurons!

3. How Exercise Can Double Your Productivity 

Sir Richard Branson  knows a thing or two about productivity.

He started his first business, a magazine called Student, when he was only 16, and now at 66, he oversees more than 400 companies through his media and travel conglomerate the Virgin Group.

Despite a "to-do" list that would make most people's head's spin, Sir Richard starts each day with a run or a bike ride.

In an interview, Branson said, "I definitely can achieve twice as much by keeping fit," and there is good science to back him up.

Once again, BDNF is thought to be responsible for some of these effects, but exercise also boosts levels of epinephrine (adrenaline) secreted by the adrenal glands.

Stimulants like caffeine also increase epinephrine, but chronic, long-term use of stimulants can have harmful effects.

Getting your stimulant fix from exercise however has positive “side-effects” (looking better naked for one) plus going for a run is cheaper than a “triple Venti latte”!

4. How Exercise Can Help You Feel Happier and More Content

In another study focused on office workers, it was found that  on days  when employees exercised, they experienced more productivity, had smoother interactions with their colleagues, and perhaps most importantly, went home feeling more satisfied at the end of the day.

Some of this effect might be explained by the fact that simply setting, and perhaps more importantly, achieving goals has a positive effect on well-being and self-concept, so crossing “work out” off of your daily to-do list might be enough to boost feelings of accomplishment and success.

However, neurochemistry likely plays a role in this as well, give that levels of both GABA, a neurotransmitter that has a natural anti-anxiety effect, as well as anandamide, an endocannabinoid similar to the THC molecule found in cannabis, are increased with exercise, so instead of popping a Xanax and taking a puff on a joint to get through the day, you can get some of the same relaxing, satisfying effects from hitting the gym.


While a flatter stomach, bigger biceps, or toned legs might be the reason you start working out, improvements in brain chemistry, memory, well-being, productivity, and contentment might be the motivation you need to keep the routine going.


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