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5 Brain Chemicals That Exercise Changes

Workouts are mostly thought of as a solution to problems in your body. Whether that means altering your appearance, building functional strength or endurance, or reducing your risk for disease, exercise is known for its physical benefits.


One area that’s not often-talked about is mental health. Exercise might be one of the most potent brain-altering therapies available. Today we’re going to talk about 5 chemicals your brain releases when you exercise that do some pretty incredible things.

You might’ve heard cortisol referred to as the “stress hormone.” It’s released in greater quantities when you’re stressed out, and can lead to some health issues if you have too much cortisol for too long. Some issues that elevated cortisol can cause include high blood pressure, high blood sugar, and depression.


Exercise and cortisol have an interesting relationship. When you workout, you actually release more cortisol than if you were just sitting on the couch. However, your body rapidly converts cortisol into another, inactive form once you stop exercising. That makes people who exercise ultimately have less of the stress hormone in their body.

Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) makes you smarter. It enhances brain plasticity, which means you’re better at learning when you have more BDNF in your system. It also boosts your memory. Interestingly, people who are stressed have less of this brain chemical, but exercise can reverse that trend.


You might notice that this sounds similar to cannabis, which is marijuana. Endocannabinoids are basically your body’s own form of THC that makes you feel great and worry less. They’re at least partially responsible for the “high” you feel when you workout.


Mistakenly thought of as the chemical that makes you feel good when you workout, dopamine is actually more closely related to learning and memory. This is another one of the brain chemicals released when you exercise that can make you smarter. It’s also helpful in reducing feelings of fatigue.


Serotonin helps regulate your emotions and can improve memory function. It’s released when you exercise, and the more you workout the better your brain is at producing this wonderful chemical. Serotonin also blunts your body’s stress response to exercise. In other words, serotonin protects your body from potentially harmful side-effects of working out.

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