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Benefits of Exercise Beyond the Physical

How to build habits of excellence to build a legacy of strength: The positive feedback loop of exercise & influence of biological mechanisms.

Showing up for yourself means putting in the preparation to set yourself up for success. Understanding the positive feedback loop of exercise is key to create habits that will build a strong foundation for when motivation wanes.

It is a widely accepted fact that exercise, physical activity or movement in any form has a largely positive effect on our body and mind. We can see the evidence of this when we look in the mirror and see the extra muscle, when we are able to lift heavier weights, add kilometers to our run, or fit more comfortably into our clothing. We can not only see the benefits, but we feel them too with more energy, more motivation, positive mood and feelings of success and accomplishment.

You can’t rely solely on willpower to keep you motivated.

The biological mechanisms that drive the positive effects of exercise on mood and well-being can be largely attributed to the modulation of serotonin, dopamine, endocannabinoid, brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal system axis (HPA).1 Understanding how each of these mechanisms work when associated with exercise, enables us to reap the benefits by specifically creating habits around not only training, but also to other areas of your life.

Serotonin is largely associated with being our happy chemical. Studies have shown that both low intensity and acute aerobic exercise not only increases serotonin levels in specific regions of the brain but also upregulates the expression of serotonin receptors. This results in a decrease in depressive and anxious behaviour, better mood and resistance to negative behavioural consequence.1,2 One study even found that exercise was generally comparable to antidepressant medication for patients experiencing major depressive disorder.3

Dopamine is a natural chemical found in the human body, being the primary neurotransmitter associated with reward, motivation and cognitive function, with moderate aerobic exercise linked to increased levels of dopamine in the body.2 Chronic or regular exercise and training is not only associated with increased levels of this neurotransmitter but also to increases in dopamine receptors and receptor binding potential (essentially improving the overall function of the dopaminergic system).1 One study found that healthy individuals with depleted levels of dopamine precursors (phenylalanine/tyrosine) actually had a reduced motivation to exercise.1 It can be argued that due to dopamine’s involvement in the reward aspects and ultimately the motivation to exercise, that more physical activity creates more motivation, in turn creating more physical activity and thus the positive cycle continues.

Endorphins, endogenous opioids and endocannabinoids are associated with the short-term effects of euphoria, sedation, relaxation and also pain reduction.1,4 Studies have shown that acute aerobic exercise activates this system with endocannabinoid production directly related to exercise intensity. Moderate to intense physical activity has shown to yield the highest production of these endogenous compounds, with results showing an increase in positive mood and an overall heightened sense of well-being.1

Physical activity has actually been shown to positively change the structural and functional composition of the brain. This has resulted in increased cell proliferation, survival and differentiation while also stimulating the growth of new capillaries allowing for the critical transport of nutrients to the neurons in the brain.4 These pathways and functions can be attributed to the increase in BDNF following chronic and regular exposure to physical activity and exercise. This not only means improved cognition and stress resilience, but that there is also ongoing benefit from the neuroprotective effects of BDNF post exercise.1

Two popular terms that go hand in hand is the link between ‘Fight or Flight’ and our response to stress. Exercise has a profoundly beneficial effect on these mechanisms by increasing blood circulation to the brain and exerting an influence over the communication between the HPA axis and several regions controlling motivation, mood, stress response and memory.5 Activation of the sympathetic nervous system (HPA axis) in response to stress, produces similar reactions in the body to exercise which might look like heavy perspiration, increased heart rate and increased cortisol levels. This results in the body essentially learning to associate these markers with safety instead of danger. One study has shown that with regular exercise there is a reduction of anxiety and feelings of panic in those prone to anxiety and depressive disorders.3

Acknowledging the results we ‘feel’ as real, is important to understand as they are the result of complex biological processes. This occurs beyond the physical results we ‘see’, as an important aspect of health that cannot be underestimated. Enhanced mood, greater motivation, a stronger sense of well-being, improved cognitive function and stress resilience are just some of the beneficial results we can achieve from the practice of regular physical activity.


1) Chad D. Rethorst, Chapter 15 – Overview of Mechanisms of Action of Exercise in Psychiatric Disorders and Future Directions for Research, Editor(s): Brendon Stubbs, Simon Rosenbaum, Exercise-Based Interventions for Mental Illness, Academic Press,2 018, Pages 285-299, ISBN 9780128126059,
2) Clark A, Mach N. Exercise-induced stress behaviour, gut-microbiota-brain axis and diet: a systematic review for athletes. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition (2016) 13:43 1-21. Doi: 10.1186/s12970-016-0155-6
3) Weir K. The exercise effect. American Psychologist Association. Dec 2011: 42(11) 48
4) Lubans D, Richards J, Hillman C, et al. Physical Activity for Cognitive and Mental Health in Youth: A Systematic Review of Mechanisms. Pediatrics. 2016;138(3):e20161642
5) Guszkowska M. Effects of exercise on anxiety, depression and mood [in Polish]. Psychiatr Pol 2004;38:611–620