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Does Exercise Release a Chemical in the Brain?

author image Julie Warren, PT
Calling the Rocky Mountains home, Julie Warren has been writing since 2009. She has published in "American Beauty" magazine and has lectured and presented specialty areas of sports medicine. Warren holds a Bachelor of Science in physical therapy and a Bachelor of Science in physical and health education from McMaster University in Ontario, Canada.
Does Exercise Release a Chemical in the Brain?
A happy woman riding a bike on the beach. Photo Credit: Kraig Scarbinsky/Digital Vision/Getty Images

Exercise is the best medicine for a healthy mind and body. Regular exercise will not only benefit you physically, it can provide emotional and psychological perks as well. During exercise, several different chemicals are released into the brain, with a broad range of positive effects. These chemicals are powerful mood- and mind-boosting substances.

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In a 1999 study by Duke University researchers James A. Blumenthal and Michael A. Babyak, published in the "Archives of Internal Medicine," it was found that those who exercised at a moderate intensity of 40 minutes, three to five days per week, experienced the greatest mood-boosting benefits. The release of these chemicals into the brain vary between individuals who exercise at the same intensity. Aerobic exercise performed regularly at a comfortable and consistent level, was also linked to increased chemical release.


Endorphins are released by the pituitary gland in the brain during sustained, vigorous exercise. Thought to be released in response to painful or stressful stimuli, endorphins diminish the pain associated with exercise, allowing you to exercise longer and at higher intensities. Other endorphin effects include decreased stress, euphoric feelings often referred to as a post-exercise high, decreased appetite and improved immune response.


Serotonin is another neurochemical released during exercise. Serotonin is a natural mood enhancer. When levels of serotonin are increased, symptoms of depression can be decreased. Simon N. Young, editor in chief of the "Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience," reports that people with lower levels of serotonin may experience negative physical effects in addition to depressed mood, such as increased risk for heart disease.

Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor

Brain-derived neurotrophic factor, known as BDNF, is a neurotransmitter also found to be released into the brain in response to exercise. This chemical has been shown to help reduce the symptoms of depression. Dr. Gary Small, writing for, reports that this substance can also enhance brain health and memory.


The number of positive emotional effects gained from regular exercise is surprising. These effects include improved self-esteem, enhanced mood, better memory and mental functioning, and decreased stress. Dr. Small cites evidence that shows similar decreases in depression between groups that exercised and groups that took anti-depressant medication. More research is being done on these effects.


As with any exercise program, use caution when adding or increasing your exercise routine. If you have underlying health problems or experience health related concerns during exercise, consult your physician. Do not discontinue prescribed anti-depressant medication without first consulting with your physician.

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