The Psychology of exercise

The Psychology of exercise

Have you ever wondered what motivates a person to exercise? Is it your brain that encourages you to get into exercise mode or is it just a random unplanned action?

It is no secret that the advantages of physical exercise are endless but something that people tend to overlook is the positive impact of exercise on your cognitive health. Research has also shown that physical exercise is a strong gene modulator that can provoke structural and functional changes in the brain, which ultimately helps your brain to function optimally. Physical exercise can also slow down neurodegeneration―the progressive loss of structure or functions of neurons―that could occur later in life. The brain’s ability to restructure or rewire itself when identifying a need to adapt, known as neuroplasticity, is also influenced by physical exercise.

Let’s get factual

Grey matter vs. white matter

To comprehend the immense impact of physical exercise on cognitive health, it is essential to have a general understanding of the brain’s anatomical structure. For example, the brain can be divided into grey matter and white matter. Grey matter consists of tissue in the brain and spinal cord that is made up of cells. This area of the brain is associated with cognitive skills. The white matter of your brain consists of bundles of axons―a type of nerve fibre that carries nerve impulses away from the cell body. The main purpose of white matter is to conduct, process and send nerve signals up and down the spinal cord.

Bringing the theory to life: as part of a study that was conducted in Germany from 1997 to 2012, 2013 participants’ cardiorespiratory fitness were evaluated while they worked out on an exercise bike. Thanks to the MRIs that measured the participants’ brains during the study, it was clear that physical exercise, in particular cardio exercise, was effective in preserving the brain’s grey matter, ultimately preventing the brain from shrinking.

Exploring the psychology of exercise

The biological effects of physical exercise are mainly related to increased cerebral blood flow, maximal oxygen consumption, delivering oxygen to cerebral tissue, and reducing muscle tension.

Among the psychological hypothesis proposed to explain how physical exercise enhances a person’s overall wellbeing, it has been known to result in a feeling of control, competency and self-efficacy, while also improving a person’s self-concept and self-esteem.

Psychological research has shown that physical exercise can even modulate a person’s personality. Moreover, physical exercise has been correlated with hardiness, a personality style that enables a person to withstand or cope with stressful situations.

The psychological effects of longer and consistent training programmes (several months) that last more than 30 minutes have been associated with reducing anxiety and depression.

Neurophysiological driven theories have noted that exercise can improve mental wellbeing by assisting with the production of antioxidants, DNA repair, and protein-degrading enzymes, increasing neurotrophic factors such as brain-derived neurotrophic factors (BDNF)―a gene that gives instructions to develop the protein found in the brain and spinal cord―and insulin-like growth factor I, which are crucial for optimal mental health, neurogenesis, and brain plasticity.

Exercise impacts several neurotransmitters in our brains such as serotonin, dopamine, acetylcholine, and norepinephrine, which are the chemical neurobiological factors that make one feel good (e.g., runner’s high). Exercise has many other neurobiological effects on the brain, such as increasing levels of cerebral spinal fluid (CSF), which aids in the cooling of the brain from excessive heat as a result of oxidative stress.

Other theories such as the self-determination theory, driven by psychological concepts, state that exercise can help improve mental wellbeing by giving people a sense of autonomy, competence, and increased intrinsic motivation.

How physical exercise influences cognitive health

By having a better understanding of the psychology and white matter vs. grey matter of the brain, it is easier to comprehend the impact of physical exercise on your cognitive health. Physical exercise increases blood flow, improves cerebrovascular health, determines benefits on glucose and lipid metabolism carrying “food” to the brain, and also facilitates the release of the peripheral brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). A possible explanation for these positive structural and functional effects could be that physical exercise stimulates blood circulation in the neural circuits involved in cognitive functioning.

It has been proven that the cognitive functions that are influenced the most by brain maturation, such as attention or cognitive flexibility, and the cognitive functions that depend the most on experiences, such as memory, are the most sensitive to physical exercise. These studies suggest that for a positive effect on cognitive function, it is necessary to maintain an enriched lifestyle up to middle life. In fact, exposure to physical exercise provides a “reserve”-like an advantage, which supports enduring preservation of cognitive function in old age.

Age is just a number

There is consistent evidence that physical exercise has countless benefits for people of any age, improving psychological wellbeing and quality of life.

In youth and adulthood, most studies evidenced that physical exercise is associated with better health outcomes, such as a better mood and self-concept. In the ageing population, physical exercise helps to maintain independence, favouring social relations and mental health.

Types of exercise: anaerobic vs. aerobic exercise

Aerobic exercise results in the resynthesis of adenosine triphosphate (ATP)―a molecule made in every cell of your body. Our bodies mainly produce ATP through two mechanisms known as anaerobic metabolism and aerobic metabolism.

Anaerobic metabolism occurs without the use of oxygen and supplies small amounts of ATP over a shorter period when doing things like weightlifting and sprinting. This type of exercise has a high intensity, short duration, and unavailability of oxygen, resulting in the depletion of the muscles’ ATP and/or phosphocreatine reserves, while shifting the production of ATP to anaerobic energy mechanisms.

Aerobic metabolism requires oxygen and produces more ATP over a slower period. Aerobic metabolism, therefore, works while you exercise at a slow and steady pace, such as jogging, running, cycling and swimming. Aerobic mechanisms influence cognitive health by adjusting the intensity of a workout (from low to high), the duration of a workout (usually long), and oxygen availability. The intensity depends on the cardiorespiratory effort with respect to the maximum heart rate or the maximum oxygen consumption, which results in an increase in oxygen consumption with respect to the rest condition.

Growing evidence has shown that acute aerobic exercise, defined as a single bout of exercise, relates to improved cognitive functions. In this research, it was indicated that even a single bout of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise enhances a person’s mood and emotional state and improves a person’s overall wellbeing.

Moderate-intensity exercise is related to increased performance in working memory and cognitive flexibility, whereas high-intensity exercise improves the speed of information processing. In fact, it has been proven that high-intensity exercise in the elderly provides greater benefit to cognitive functions than low-intensity exercise.

Another advantage of aerobic exercise is that it has been proven to reduce anxiety and depression when exercising with an intensity of between 30% and 70% of maximal heart rate. Anaerobic activity, such as yoga, or all physical exercises in which there are rhythmic abdominal breathing and repetitive movements, and the relative absence of interpersonal competition can improve a person’s mood.

Ways to stay motivated

To exercise sounds easy on paper, but how do you stay motivated for it to ultimately become part of your lifestyle? If you want to stay motivated, define the reasons you started exercising. It’s always helpful to have reasons written down and posted in a visible location. Keep that list handy and refer to it if you ever skip workouts or find excuses to exercise. Some reasons could be:

  • It makes me feel good about myself
  • I love how strong and fit I feel
  • I feel good when it’s over
  • I like how energetic I feel
  • It feels good to know I did something right
  • It helps me lose weight
  • It helps me sleep better
  • I feel good when my doctor asks if I exercise, and I can say ‘yes!’

The best way to establish that exercise momentum is for exercise to become a habit. If you change your workouts to fit your life the way it is now, it will become second nature.

When asked how to support people in growing their motivation for physical activity and exercise, most experts in exercise psychology would probably recommend shifting the decisional balance by creating a belief that there are more benefits in becoming active than barriers to be overcome, bolstering their appraisals of self-efficacy, and creating social environments that promote perceptions of self-sufficiency, competence, and relatedness.

Finally, don’t wait for the perfect time to exercise because it doesn’t exist. The perfect time is now, no matter what is going on in your life. We often say we’ll start exercising when things slow down but do things ever actually slow down? If you carve out time in your daily routine, it will give you the confidence to know that you really can keep exercising, even when life gets crazy.


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