The Psychological Effects of Exercise


We are all well familiar with the fact that exercise is good for us, as commonly known benefits include improvements to cardiovascular fitness and cognition, as well as prevention of medical conditions related to obesity. As per usual, when January comes knocking on the door, we are faced with crammed gyms, reduced sugar intakes, and brand new gym clothes as we try to keep up with our New Year’s resolutions. The resolutions are based on knowledge we are well-aware of even in December and September, but that we tend to forget (or maybe just ignore): physical activity makes us happier, healthier and allows us to live longer. 

If we take a minute to reflect on the reasons behind human evolution and our function as human beings, we may arrive at the conclusion that our bodies are designed to move. Today however, our everyday lives are facilitated by products and services that reduce our activity levels, such as cars and other vehicles (including our beloved electrical scooters), home deliveries and the enormous range of online services. We are able to do almost everything from home today, even make a living for ourselves by sitting in front of a screen. In general, our activity level has changed from how it once used to be. You might recall the aggravating voice of your parents or grandparents reminding you once again that “in my days we walked or took the bike to…” (especially when you ask to take the car somewhere). Well, times have changed. We are able to move from one place to another faster, and as the result may be increased productivity due to more available time, it is often at the expense of our physical activity.

It is a common concern that humans today are too sedentary and that we have more difficulties with depression, anxiety, concentration difficulties, obesity and muscle pain. The antidote to these issues? Physical exercise (put somewhat extremely). Physical exercise is well known to have an effect on our health and well-being, but it also affects our life quality, emotions, anxiety, depression, cognition, and sleep. How?

How exercise affects the brain

Similar to how physical exercise provides health benefits, it can also boost brain function. Physical activity is linked to a stress response in the brain, and the increased brain oxygen level that exercise grants can enhance cognitive function such as memory, coordination, problem solving and decision making, reaction time (concentration), visuospatial ability and rational thinking.

During exercise, the body provides a low-dose jolt to the brain’s reward centers, the system of the brain that helps anticipate pleasure, feel motivated, and maintain hope. With regular exercise over time, the reward system remodels, resulting in higher circulating levels of dopamine and more available dopamine receptors. Consequently, exercise can alleviate depression and expand your capacity to feel joy. Simultaneously as a new workout habit is enhancing the reward system, it also increases neural connections among areas of the brain that calm anxiety. In this way, physical activity increases our courage. Regular physical activity can also improve the default state of the nervous system, leading it to become more balanced and less disposed to fight, flight or fright.

We can divide the effects our brain experiences from exercise by the physical effects and the psychological effects.  The physical effects are increased blood flow with more oxygenation of the brain, changes in neurotransmitters as training balances the levels, reduced muscle tension and structural changes in the brain with growth of the hippocampus. Psychologically, physical exercise provides increased control, as well as increased self-confidence and competence, positive social interactions, improved self-esteem, and self-image, opportunities to have fun and a social environment. The social benefits are particularly linked to exercise that involves some sort of social interaction or team effort (such as playing a sport or taking a walk with a friend). 

Indeed, when you exercise, your body releases chemicals such as serotonin, adrenaline, dopamine, endorphins, endocannabinoids. In addition to making us feel good, endorphins also help us bond. By sharing an endorphin rush through a collective activity, we feel closer to one another afterwards. Thus, physical exercise is also a powerful neurobiological mechanism for forming friendships, even with people we don’t know.

The effects our brains experience from physical exercise are due to: 

  • the increased oxygenation of the brain, alternatively due to lower levels of anxiety or nervousness as exercise assures positive effects and higher self-esteem. 
  • meditative task such as running, walking, yoga and golf that leads to rumination, which allows our thought to flow freely 
  • neurological explanation as exercise releases proteins in the brain. These nourishing proteins, also referred to as neurons, keep the brain cells healthy and promote the growth of new neurons. Neurons are the working building blocks of the brain. 
  • neurogenesis, which means growth in the brain (hippocampus)
  • changed or improved biochemistry.

Exercise on prescription

Results from meta analysis and major epidemiological studies can be summarized as having a moderate association between exercise and reduced depression in general. A compilation of prospective studies suggests the possibility that physical activity and exercise may in some cases prevent the occurrence of depression. To run three times a week for 30 minutes has in some instances proven to have the same effect as medication, in terms of depression. Indeed, physical exercise on prescription has recently been used as a treatment for depression. In some ways, physical exercise can be seen as a solution to “run off your problems”.

What does training mean to you?

It can be valuable to reflect on what training is for you. Exercise does not have to be going to a gym or playing a football match, there is a lot you can do (especially low-intensity) that also contributes to mental and physical health. Exercise is experienced in one way during the time you workout, but often in a different way when you are done. Within psychology, this is referred to as acute effects (what happens immediately after we exercise) and chronic effects (what happens mentally when exercise becomes a habit).

It is important to emphasize that exercise needs to be something we do out of joy and not based on anxiety-driven motives. An imbalance of exercise can lead to burnout, eating disorders, exercise addiction, and injuries. Thus, it is highly important to exercise properly, to rest and to vary your workouts. A variation of physical activity makes individuals less prone to burnout and injuries. Additionally, physical activity outdoors in nature has proven to have a calming effect, as well as hanging out with animals. So, to go for a walk with your dog has a greater positive effect than you might be aware of.

Even though we may not experience the stress of needing to exercise in order to survive in the same way humans have needed to historically, there are still stress-inducing reasons for why many people train today or feel that they should exercise more. This is heavily linked to the multitude of “new studies” of specific ways to eat and exercise and threats of what to definitely refrain from in order to avoid “letting yourself go” or “getting injured in the future” or similar. Considering the immense benefits of even everyday low-intensity exercise perhaps a reformulation of what exercise means to you is necessary in order to evade the pressure, stress and anxiety reinforced by social media and the vast knowledge base provided by the internet. If you reformulate everyday activities so that it’s actually rewarding, it can also be more rewarding in that you look at the activity in a different way (becomes more fun, for example, and you may become less stressed if you do not go to the gym every day).

As we are currently facing a second wave of the pandemic, several gyms are closed and we are encouraged to stay home. Covid-19 has resulted in less spontaneous activity, as we are encouraged to not go outside and to stay home. The reduced physical activity affects us considerably and does not have a positive effect on our quality of life. Exercise is important for restoring the body function,  neurotransmitters, cognitive function, our well being and so much more. So how can we still stay active and motivated?

LE sports’ mission is to give students at LUSEM an active outlet alongside their studies. They have shared some tips on how you can stay active now during the pandemic.

LE SPORTS’ recommendation of physical exercise during Covid-19 period:

  • Skiing (cross-country and alpine skiing)
  • Hiking (alone, with friends/family or a dog)
    • Tips for hiking around Lund area: Skrylle, Söderåsen, Lomma and Svaneholmssjön
  • Running
  • Biking
  • Outdoor gyms  (in Lund there is one found near Skånearena, Hästhagen and LTH)
  • Yoga (Yoga with Adriene on Youtube or join one of LE Sports’ Zoom Yoga sessions)
  • Climbing (in Lunds Stadspark there is an outdoor bouldering spot)
  • Tennis and paddle (in Lund you can play at Gerdahallen, Victoriastadion, PDL – however opening hours may be restricted due to Covid-19.)
    + Pro tip: check out Fritidsbanken in Lund for borrowing rackets and sports equipment) 
  • Skateboarding (i.e. in Stadsparken in Lund)
  • Hill intervals (Sankt Hans Backar in Lund is perfect) 
  • Basket (down by Revingegatan for example)
  • Ice skating (Stortorget in Lund) 
  • Go for a walk (with a friend, family, your dog or alone with a god podcast in the ears)
    Podcast tips? 
    • Listen to Anders Hansens Sommarprat on P1 Radio (Swedish)
    • Ted Health (Ted Talks with Health focus)
    • If you have trouble falling asleep: Somna med Henrik (Swedish)
    • Johannes Hansen (Swedish)
  • Frisbee golf (Sankt Hans Backar) 
  • Workout apps can be great if you lack motivation or want to follow a program! Some tips:
    • NTC (Nike Training Club)
    • Runkeeper (set a goal for yourself when you run)
    • Försvarsmaktens Träningsapp
    • Intervall timer apps

→ for more workout tips, check out LE Sports on Instagram (@lesports.le)

Some reading tips:

Final words

There is no doubt that we were born to move, and the benefits that exercise has on our psychological and social well-being are many. So, why not begin the new year with a resolution to stay more active – and try to keep it all year around? Certainly, you will feel better, be happier, stronger, and have better social relationships because of it – in general, become a better version of yourself, as cheeky as it may sound.  

New year, new you? 2021 let’s go!


Granér, S. (2020) Lund University School of Physiology. Lecture in the psychological effects of exercise.

 Mcgonigal, K. (2020) Five surprising ways exercise changes your brain.


Kaia Torvik Knutsen

Editor in Chief

No Comments Yet

Comments are closed