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Study Highlights the Connection Between More Exercise and a Better Mood

Research suggests it’s not just your body that can transform from working out.

A woman smiling in workout gear
  • Researchers suggested that exercise can reduce depressive symptoms due to beneficial changes in the brain.
  • It’s possible these changes may affect other brain functions as well, such as learning and memory.
  • Even small changes in physical activity can provide a mood boost, researchers noted, and regular exercise can strengthen those neural connections.

Exercise and brain health have long been positively linked through previous research, with studies noting that physical activity can provide the brain with more oxygen and blood flow. Now, a new study published in Frontiers in Psychiatry suggests there may be an additional mechanism that leads to a lower risk of depression: Exercise can literally change your neural connections.

Researchers looked at 41 people who were undergoing treatment for depression and assigned half of them to a three-week exercise program, with three 60-minute sessions per week combining coordination, endurance, and strength. The study also focused on a sense of enjoyment and teamwork, according to lead researcher Karin Rosenkranz, M.D., associate professor at the University Clinic for Psychiatry and Psychotherapy at Ruhr-Universität Bochum in Germany.

“Feeling a sense of being social helped break down fears about taking on physical challenges and led to higher levels of motivation,” she said. “Many people also might have had negative experiences with physical activity in the past, so making this into a team rather than a competition helped them overcome that.”

Researchers found that participants who joined together for physical activity had significantly fewer depression symptoms at the end of three weeks when compared to the non-exercising control group. Most notably, assessments of their brain composition before and after exercise showed better neural connections in parts of the brain related to mood, learning, and memory.

This is important because past research has shown that the brains of people with diagnosed depression tend to have less ability to change, Rosenkranz said. This can exacerbate symptoms and sometimes make them treatment-resistant. Heightening the ability for the brain to remake itself—called neuroplasticity—is a critical step forward that can be combined with other treatments, she added.

“Reduced neuroplasticity is a major part of the pathophysiology of depression,” Rosenkranz noted. “We found that physical activity, even at a moderate level and for about three hours per week, is sufficient to restore the brain’s ability to change.”

This type of adaptability is considered beneficial because it helps the brain with a range of functions including healing from injury, memory retention, and emotional regulation. She added it may be possible that any type of moderate-intensity physical activity would be beneficial, such as taking the stairs instead of the elevator or going for a brisk walk on your lunch hour.

Although minimal activity can produce some changes, neuroplasticity may be dose-dependent, she said. That means the more you do, and the more consistent you are in your exercise routine, the greater the cognitive and emotional boost.