Your Brain on Exercise

Science and research reveals how you can create a positive impact on your brain function, mood and general mental health with daily physical exercise.

Lift, squat, repeat… think?

Exercise has become a dreaded word to many. It sounds like a chore. Who knew that movement could help you think, that regular exercise could help you exorcize your depression and help to organize what goes on in that most complex organ of ours, the brain.

New research reveals how multi-faceted the effects of movement and exercise are on the brain and how it can help with your stress, sleep, cognition, mood and overall quality of life.



Researchers have found that human evolution linked thinking skills to movement. As luck would have it, too much sitting, which our modern lifestyle generally demands, is not good for the brain.

“Foraging involves many different cognitive abilities and associated brain areas, many of which may be enhanced by physical activity,” says Gene Alexander, PhD, one of the University of Arizona researchers who published a study linking exercise, cognition and brain health in the July 2017 issue of Trends in Neuroscience.

“These complex cognitive abilities are thought to depend on multiple brain regions, including the frontal cortex, the hippocampus, the motor cortex, and others,” he notes.

“We think that aerobic activity combined with mental stimulation, might be the most valuable, providing ways for the brain to establish stronger and more efficient connections, which may help to hold off aging,” says Alexander, University of Arizona professor of psychology and psychiatry, neuroscience and physiological sciences.

Aerobic exercise, also known as cardio, increases blood flow to the brain, whereas resistance training challenges muscles through lifting weights or using bands, your own body weight, or gym equipment.

“Both are beneficial, according to Roger McIntyre, MD, FRCPC, professor of psychiatry and pharmacology at the University of Toronto. “They complement each other at a molecular level.”



Imbalances with neurotransmitters, the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that stimulates new brain cells, and activity in the frontal cortex and hippocampus regions of the brain have all been linked with how bipolar affects brain function, and exercise may influence all of them. Exactly how exercise impacts these aspects of the bipolar brain has not yet been completely mapped out.

“Neurotransmitters can affect your mood if they are out of balance,” says Alexander. “Physical activity may help to modulate these important brain chemicals, help to reduce stress, and help you sleep better.”

The research suggests that “exercise benefits the brain by increasing BDNF and by increasing blood flow to the brain,” adds Alexander.

Although a University of Texas published in the January 2017 issue of Molecular Psychiatry identified the area of the hippocampus that bipolar affects, no study yet pinpoints exactly how exercise affects the hippocampus in brains with bipolar.

However, Alexander notes that as people age, there tends to be more atrophy in parts of the hippocampus. “Exercise seems to delay or diminish the atrophy in this brain structure, which is especially important for memory.”

While exercise alone is not enough to combat bipolar, McIntyre says that the studies within the last 10 years provide data that is rigorous and replicable as to how it benefits the brain. “It has a tremendous anti-depressant effect, it benefits cognition, general well-being, quality of life, and function,” he says.

“The benefit of exercise is compelling, and exercise should be considered a routine and standard recommendation for all persons affected by bipolar disorder in combination with appropriate medication and, where needed, counseling and other support services,” adds McIntyre, who is also chairman and executive director of the Brain and Cognition Discovery Foundation in Toronto and director of the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance in Chicago.

David S. from Minnesota was diagnosed with bipolar II in 2012. He credits the commitment he made to medication two years ago with helping him establish healthy routines, such as exercise.

“Medication got me to a steady baseline, so I could start doing other things. It got me through the door.”

On the other side of the door were graduate school and the routine of exercising three to four times a week. He does not get down on himself if he misses one of his weekly sessions and says, “I exercise because it will make me feel much more stable and improve my whole life.”

Indeed, exercise improves his sleep, thus ensuring a good mood the following day. David adds. “If I’m in a bad mood, running can completely turn it around.”



Finding the motivation to make exercise a habit varies from person to person. Some with bipolar are lucky enough to have been born into an active lifestyle, but that’s not the case for everyone.

Natasha Tracy from British Columbia is challenged by chronic pain as well as bipolar II. The renowned speaker, bipolarburble blogger, and author of Lost Marbles: My Life with Bipolar Disorder and Depression recalls her stint at a gym a few years back, in which she experimented with elliptical and rowing machines: “People kept telling me that they felt good after. I felt terrible after, because I was in pain and I was exhausted. I couldn’t do anything the rest of the day.”

Recently, Tracy’s primary care doctor suggested Aqua Fit and made her an offer she couldn’t refuse: three months’ access to a recreation center for $50, as long as she made a commitment to try it out. She’s working toward a goal of feeling “less chronic body pain.”

Although skeptical at first, Tracy also recently started wearing a Fitbit. It prompts her to get up and walk around, because it buzzes if she doesn’t achieve her 250 steps an hour. “I’m a data girl,” she admits. “I thought I might be motivated if I saw my progress.”

For those who are struggling to begin exercising, start off slow and build up in frequency, duration, and intensity, recommends Benjamin Goldstein, MD, PhD, FRCPC, professor of psychiatry, pharmacology, and psychological clinical science at the University of Toronto. “Start with 10 to 15 minutes. If someone just jumps in for an intense half hour on a bike, they might have a bad experience.”

There’s more to exercise than helping to relieve symptoms from bipolar, says Goldstein, who is also director of the Centre for Youth Bipolar Disorder and director of research in psychiatry at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre. He says another compelling reason to exercise aerobically is the link between bipolar and heart disease.

“Bipolar increases the risk of heart disease and makes it happen earlier,” he says.



Jeff G. from British Columbia grew up playing a variety of sports, including soccer, hockey, and baseball. At the age of eight he became a competitive swimmer and was part of multiple national record-breaking relay teams. When a shoulder injury ended his competitive swimming career at age 16, he transitioned to coaching swimmers and competing in triathlons.

When Jeff was 15, he had to give up swimming for a year to heal his shoulder. During that year, he attempted suicide twice, but he was not diagnosed with bipolar II until age 26.

“Growing up and being in sports so intensely – it’s like having endorphins ingrained,” explains Jeff. “When I have struggled the most with my mood instability in my life, the activity in my life has been at its lowest.” For him, staying healthy means staying active.

“The minimum I need to do to feel right is running three times a week, walking the dog daily, and yoga three times a week. If I do less, my mood starts to drop almost instantly. My self-esteem takes a hit and my anxiety increases an extreme amount,” he says.

About six years ago, Jeff transitioned from swim coach to yoga teacher. He teaches a variety of yoga classes, including classes for swimmers and yoga for mental health. The fitness aspect of yoga is incredible, he explains, “but even more helpful is the mindfulness aspect, which has changed my life.”



“Functional differences in the brain that distinguished teens with hypomania became more like regular teens after a single session of exercise,” says Goldstein, one of the Sunnybrook research psychiatrists that conducted a study published in the May 17, 2016 issue of Translational Psychiatry.

The study “found evidence that a single 20-min bout of aerobic exercise impacts both neural deactivation deficits in attention and activation deficits in inhibition.” In other words, post-exercise, underlying concentration and impulsivity improved.



Mobility is tightly linked to brain health, says McIntyre. “Patients have often told me they have a sense of a loss of control,” he says.” They take pleasure in hearing that by doing something they can help themselves. It is empowering.”

For Madison (not her real name), exercise is a way to help with anxiety and to clear her head. The university student from Toronto employs twice-weekly exercise sessions, which include resistance training and cardio. Diagnosed with bipolar I two years ago while still in high school, she is determined to do anything she can to maintain good health.

“I love the feeling of physical exhaustion. It can be very difficult when you just have the mental exhaustion. There’s nothing that compares to the feeling of sweating,” she says, adding that ultimately, it reminds her that there is a way she can feel differently.


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Exercise, your brain’s best friend

Here’s a taste of the compelling research that demonstrates how exercise benefits your brain:

1. Aerobic activity combined with mental stimulation enables the brain to establish stronger and more efficient connections says Gene Alexander, PhD, University of Arizona professor of psychology and psychiatry, neuroscience and physiological sciences.

2. Cardio, aka aerobic exercise, increases blood flow to the brain. If you can no longer carry on a conversation, you have achieved aerobic exercise says Roger McIntyre, MD, FRCPC, professor of psychiatry and pharmacology at the University of Toronto.

3. Resistance training challenges the brain to build new neuronal pathways. If done consistently, it increases muscle mass, which in turn helps boost your metabolism.

4. Exercise influences all aspects of the brain that have been linked with bipolar, including imbalances with neurotransmitters and activity in the frontal cortex and hippocampus sections of the brain, says Gene Alexander, PhD, University of Arizona researcher and professor.

5. Exercise has a tremendous anti-depressant effect and benefits cognition (thinking skills), says Roger McIntyre, MD, FRCPC, professor of psychiatry and pharmacology at the University of Toronto


Printed as “Your brain on exercise,” Spring 2018


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