Here’s what one session of exercise does to your brain

A new study has looked closely at the impact of exercise on the brain – and found that just one session boosts your mood and brain function.

It’s common knowledge that being active is good for your mood and mental health in the long term. But what exactly happens in your brain while you exercise?

The science


Researchers from New York University looked into how the brain changes during a single, hour-long session of exercise (termed ‘acute’ exercise). They reviewed existing experiments and identified the cognitive and behavioural changes that take place after a single session of exercise

This review focuses on the neurobiological changes that occur in the brain. There is a lot of research out there which looks at the effect of exercise on mood and brain function, but less attention has been paid to how and why this actually happens.

The researchers found that acute exercise results in better executive function, improved mood and lower stress levels. They explored the mechanisms by which these changes occurred, finding that exercise activates extended brain areas and increases the levels of several brain chemicals. These changes occur in the brain while you’re exercising and immediately afterwards. Let’s take a closer look at these three astounding claims.

Work better

The study found that acute exercise consistently results in the same three main effects: better executive function, improved mood and lower stress levels. Executive function is the mental processing that helps us work and get things done: planning, ability to focus, multi-tasking, etc1.

This means that, in addition to the long term and cumulative effects of exercise, just one hour-long session of exercise will help you focus, improve your mood and relieve stress. These changes happen instantaneously – you’ll feel better as soon as you start working out and immediately afterwards1.

Learn better


The researchers found that when people exercise, it activates the neurotransmitters in several extended brain regions. They describe this as one of the most dramatic effects that they saw. By activating these regions of the brain, higher levels of brain chemicals were released, including dopamine1. Dopamine helps the brain to learn. It is one of the main components of the brain’s reward circuits, rewarding you with a rush of pleasure when you do something ‘good’ – like exercise1.

Feel better

Lastly, the study found that one single session of exercise led to the release of ‘feel-good’ chemicals in the brain. These chemicals, called neuromodulators, include endogenous opioids and endocannabinoids. They are natural chemicals and induce a state of mild euphoria – accounting for phenomena like the ‘runners’ high’ effect1. One of the researchers commented: “The studies presented in this review clearly demonstrate that acute exercise has profound effects on brain chemistry and physiology.”1

Time to get moving

Are you persuaded to get out for that run, gym session or training practice yet? This study clearly shows that you can start to feel the benefits of exercise after just one session, and after every session.

Another study published recently into the impacts of exercise for breast cancer survivors has reported that exercise is the closest thing to a miracle drug that exists. If you exercise regularly, the immediate effects of exercise on the brain turn into long-term changes in the brain and the body to help you feel fitter, healthier and happier.


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