Impact of Exercise on Student Success and Mental Health

Compiled by Kaveh Farrokh (Ph.D.), Counsellor & Learning Specialist at Langara College Counselling Department. the article below was originally posted in 2019 but has been substantially revised in 2020 due to new research findings.


Exercise has long been known to be beneficial for physical health, however more research outlines the beneficial impact of physical exercise upon mental health and wellness. Specifically, physical exercise has a constructive impact upon positive moods, constructive/adaptive thinking as well as focus, concentration, learning and memory.

In an article published in the January 2020 edition of the Scientific American, Raichlen and Alexander state that:

“…exercise seems to be as much a cognitive activity as a physical one” (p.28).

Put simply, the brain benefits as much as the body from physical exercise.

Researchers have long known of the phenomenon known as the “Runner’s High” – that sense of euphoria that arises after intense and prolonged workouts/exercise. It was first discovered in 2008 that the endorphins released in the brain after intense workouts and/or long running sessions were the same neurochemicals also active in those brain regions associated with strong emotions.

Arthur F. Kramer et al. (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign– as cited by Southwick et al., 2019, p.11 and Raichlen & Alexander, 2020, p.29) have discovered that moderate intensity aerobic workouts (3 days/wk for a year) results in:

1] Increased levels of BNDF

2] Increase in the size of the Hippocampus (which as noted previously, is also critical for building memories during learning and is integrated with the “emotional brain” or the limbic system). While it is not clear whether this increase in volume is due to neuroplasticity, increased connections between neuros or even neurogenesis, it is nevertheless clear that the hippocampus region does grow with aerobic exercise.

3] Significant improvements in memory and learning performance, especially among older adults

The Hippocampus is also an integral part of the limbic system (or the “emotional brain”) which can promote effective Stress Management.

This is consistent with the research of Benjamin Greenwood et al. (University of Colorado, Boulder – as cited by Southwick et al., 2019, pp.10-11) who have discovered significant support for the efficacy of physical exercise with respect to significantly decreasing fear, depression and anxiety. Interestingly, exercise has been found to have the following two positive impacts on Neurotransmitters:

1] Exercise boosts Dopamine (the sense of intrinsic “reward” when enjoying various tasks) and Serotonin (promotes peacefulness, serenity, hopefulness).

2] Exercise suppresses Cortisol (the stress hormone).

A study published by Maddock et al. in the Journal of Neuroscience in 2016 has found that aerobic exercise also enhances levels of GABA (the neurochemical that allowing to “hit the brakes” which, like Serotonin, leads to a sense of tranquility) and Glutamate (critical for learning and memory).

Exercise also enhances BNDF (Brain-derived Neurotrophic Factor) which promotes the Growth and Repair of Neurons. BNDF is actually produced throughout the human body as well as the in the brain. In addition, as noted by Bassuk, Church and Manson:

Most recently, animal studies have identified a protein produced in the hippocampus that is responsible for increasing BNDF expression and turning on genes related to cognition” (2019, p.82).

As reported by Raichlen and Alexander it has been found that:

“ … in humans… aerobic exercise leads to the production of BNDF and augments the structure – that is, the size and connectivity – of key areas of the brain, including the hippocampus ” (2020, p.28).

Aerobic exercise appears to place the brain into a more active and alert state, one typically seen with the brain’s Beta waves (typical of a person focused and directly engaged on tasks).

Bassuk, Church and Manson (2019, pp.81-82) have noted that exercise promotes a number of critical skills that are essential for promoting student success, notably by helping enhance:

  • Attention
  • Decision Making
  • Planning
  • Organization
  • Memory

Aerobic exercise in particular has been found to help the person’s sense of attention, planning and organization.  Note that as the above skills increase, the person is also more empowered with respect to adaptively managing stress. This in turn provides a boost in the person’s self-efficacy and ultimately, self-esteem.

Moderate intensity exercises found to be effective are typically swimming and running, although other types of cardiovascular workouts provided by exercise machines of various types can also be effective.

Another cognitive benefit of physical exercise is the enhancement of the senses, notably with respect to visual acuity. Put simply, persons who exercise regularly exhibit an enhanced sense of awareness of their environment.

Exercise can also enhance a person’s abilities to in retaining their learning and memory skills as they age. It is also possible that regular exercise may even help protect against dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Mental Fitness and Physical Exercise

There have been a number of seminal studies that have investigated the links between physical exercise and mental fitness, inclusing seniors as well as older people in general. An article published by Hertzog, Kramer, Wilson, and Lindenberger in the Winter 2015 Special Collector’s edition of Scientific American Mind has provided a comprehensive overview of these studies.

Summarizing these findings, Hertzog et al. aver that the brain can retain its abilities for a longer period of time with respect to memory and learning, if persons choose to exercise on a regular basis. According to Hertzog et al.:

As everybody knows, if you do not work out, your muscles get flaccid. What most people don’t realize, however, is that you brain also stays in better shape when you exercise. And not challenging your noggin by, for example, learning a new language, doing difficult crosswords or taking on other intellectually stimulating tasks. As researchers are finding, physical exercise is critical to vigorous mental health too” (2015, p.32).

Two key implications of the above are as follows:

1] By choosing to remain physically fit by exercising regularly, you also significantly benefit with respect to mental fitness.

2] Physical exercise also promotes mental fitness into old age.

Hertzog et al. further aver:

a review of dozens of studies shows that maintaining a mental edge requires … participating in activities that make you think, getting regular exercise, staying socially engaged and even having a positive attitude – have a meaningful influence on how effective your cognitive functioning will be in old age” (2015, p.32, 34).

The researchers also note that intelligence is not just a matter of genetic and inheritance. Staying mentally and physically active help in maintaining mental sharpness as we age over time. So, to summarize, there is a powerful link between mental sharpness and physical exercise: by keeping yourself physically fit, you also help to keep your mind sharp as well. Herzog et al. also challenge traditional stereotypes with respect to learning and aging:

At one time, the accepted stereotype was that “Old Dogs can’t Learn New Tricks”. Science has proven this dictum must be discarded” (2015, p.34).

Exercise: Do it for Wellness … or Be less Well and Live Less

An important study by Herman Pontzor (Associate Professor, Evolutionary Anthropology, Duke University) published in 2019 compared the evolutionary trajectory of apes and humans, especially with respect to the importance of physical exercise. The results of this study are notable.

First, it was found that apes (chimpanzees, gorillas, chimpanzees) do not have to vigorously exercise in order to survive and can remain fit for life by being “lazy”.

The study for example found that gorillas in captivity do not develop any diseases often associated with lack of activity in humans (i.e. obesity, etc.).

The second implication of the study pertains to humans: exercise (for humans) is not optional – it is in fact essential. Pontzor concludes that humans have in fact specifically evolved to exercise in order to survive.

The implications of this study are of prime importance, both in how these complement the findings discussed earlier in this paper and also with respect to the “modern lifestyle” of regularized lack of physical activity such as sitting for long periods of time to engage in studying, work, internet surfing, engaging with social media, playing video games, etc. Pontzor has also research this domain in his study, with just one of his findings cited in his article as follows:

Bingeing all 63 ½ Hours of Game of Thrones will cost You one day on this planet” (2019, p.26).

Thus, while technology certainly is essential for civilization, humans would certainly benefit from balancing their (over-involvement) with technology with physical exercise on a daily basis. This is essential for maintaining mental wellness, focus, concentration, focus, planning, decision-making, learning and memory as well as maintaining a longer, more fulfilling and healthier lifespan. This applies to students (elementary, secondary and post-secondary), persons in the workforce as well as retirees and senior citizens. Interestingly as study by – published in 2011 in the Journal of Applied Physiology provides the following conclusion:

“… there is growing evidence that both aerobic and resistance training are important for maintaining cognitive and brain health in old age” (2011, p.1505)


Bassuk, S.S., Church, T.S., & Manson, J.E. (2018). Why exercise works magic. Scientific American Mind: Behavior-Brain Science-Insights (Special Collector’s Edition), Volume 27, Number 1, Spring, pp.80-83.

Maddock, R.J., Casazza, G.A., Fernandez, D.H., & Maddock, M.I. (2016). Acute Modulation of Cortical Glutamate and GABA Content by Physical Activity. The Journal of Neuroscience, 36(8), pp.2449 –2457.

Hertzog, C., Kramer, A.F., Wilson, R.S., and Lindenberger, U. (2015). Fit Body, Fit Mind? Scientific American Mind: Behavior-Brain Science-Insights (Special Collector’s Edition), Volume 23, Number 4, Winter, pp.32-39.

Pontzor, H. (2019). Evolved to exercise. Scientific American, Volume 320, Number 1, pp. 23-29.

Raichlen, & Alexander, (2020). Why your brain needs exercise. Scientific American, Volume 322, Number 1, January, pp.28-31.

Southwick, S.M., & Charney, D.S. (2018). Ready for anything. Scientific American Mind: Behavior-Brain Science-Insights (Special Collector’s Edition), Volume 27, Number 1, Spring, pp.4-13.

Voss, M.W., Nagamatsu, L.S., Liu-Ambrose, T., & Kramer, A.F. (2011). Exercise, brain and cognition across the lifespan. Journal of Applied Physiology, 111, pp.1505-1513.

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