Why Exercise is Better than Xanax

Exercise is perhaps one of the best things you can do for yourself next to eating healthy, when it comes to improving your mood – feeling happy and energetic. You could probably also add great sex and meditation to that list, but that’s not what this post is about.  Forget about popping pills, exercise has both short and long lasting mood and cognitive boosting action on the brain.  Here’s how exercise is better than xanax; and how to get the most out of your exercise plan.

This is your brain on exercise…

If you’re reason for exercise is mostly focused on your exterior body, you’ve probably completely missed the benefit exercise can have on your brain.  Majority of us focus on the exterior benefits – building muscle, lean curves, a nice flat stomach – we all want to look better, especially in a bikini.  Although looking fit on the outside is a great boost for our self-confidence, exercise actually does a lot more than this superficial benefit.  It can also increase stamina and endurance, improve heart function, make bones stronger and elevate metabolism, but what about the brain?

  1. Exercise causes stress on the body – which in turn triggers the fight or flight response. You know the decision to run away like a bitch or put up your fists and fight.
  2. To protect the brain during this stress, the brain releases BDNF – brain derived neurotrophic factor, this protein has a protective and repairative effect to your neurons and even your memory – acting as a reset switch for stress. #happybrainon
  3. At the same time, the stress response causes the release of endorphins that make us feel energetic, but also ready to deal and cope. These endorphins can give us a euphoric high and block the feeling of pain, so we can perform like wonder woman during a stressful situation.
  4. The bad part – the feeling we get from the release of both BDNF and endorphins may cause an addictive high – you know like an adrenaline junkie or a runners high – you can get addicted to the feeling you get from exercise and may even feel guilty and moody when you miss your daily gym dose. Over time, it can even take more exercise to elicit the same euphoric response.

workout tips

Exercise: A Good Addiction

Exercise has such a positive impact on brain chemistry that it’s actually not even necessary to work out every day.  In fact, exercise increases neuronal survival and resistance to brain insult, promotes vascularization – increases blood flow, stimulates neurogenesis – neuron development, enhances learning and contributes to maintaining cognitive function; all of which can be controlled by BDNF.

So in less technical terms; here are a few benefits from regular and consistent exercise when it comes to your brain…

  • Makes you more productive and increases on-the-job task performance
  • Improves memory, focus and problem solving ability
  • Increases calmness – lifting iron, punching and kicking the bag or people, running sprints like a mofo, or whatever workout you like to perform basically acts as a stress outlet
  • Increases motivation and the ability to cope with stress
  • Makes you more happy and less bitchy

So how do you control BDNF to feel happy now…

Overall consistent and regular exercise can cause the release of BDNF.  Although research isn’t completely clear on the pathway for BDNF release, here’s what is known:

  1. Prolonged endurance exercise – like long distance running produces BDNF, which would explain the term ‘runners high’
  2. Moderate and intense aerobic exercise – performed for just 30 minutes elevates BDNF – think cycling with some resistance or something more difficult and annoying like using the step mill.
  3. Resistance or strength training doesn’t appear to have significant effect on BDNF release into the blood stream however one study did show BDNF release in non-trained, healthy individuals.
  4. Women have less BDNF release than men who perform the same workout.

Bottom line – cardio or aerobic exercise is most likely the best way to get BDNF activated.  In other words, don’t skip cardio! It is just as important to the brain as it is to the heart.  Performing an intense cardio session incorporated into a regular strength training program will help to keep you looking good and feeling good too.  Consider using exercise programs that focus on high intensity intervals to increase VO2 max – the maximum or optimum rate at which the heart, lungs and muscles can effectively use oxygen during training.  Switch between intervals of conditioning or lifting exercises performed at a fast pace, along with running, skipping or even pad or bag work component.  Tabata training is also a great option.

How to exercise like you mean it…

Consistent exercise is the key when it comes to experiencing any kind of benefit.  Although sometimes easier said than done, here’s a few workout tips:

  1. Make it part of your agenda – schedule your workouts weekly and if possible daily! At least 4 to 5 times per week should be your goal.
  2. Be accountable – join a class or group, get a personal trainer or a workout partner. I do all three – I belong to a Muay Thai group, have a few coaches I work with one on one and have training partners that all keep my motivation going!
  3. Be ready 24/7 – my gym bag is ready to go the night before, and my equipment is in my car! No excuses or backing out of a workout.
  4. Track your progress – setting goals for your workout will help you to keep going, whether it’s nailing a kick technically, increasing weight on a lift or going the distance on a run.

Until Next Time,

Be Fierce & Rule the World,

Lauren Jacobsen


Correia PR, et al.  Acute strength exercise and the involvement of small or large muscle mass on plasma brain-derived neurotrophic factor levels.  Clinics. 2010. 65(11): 1123-6.

Huang T, et al.  The effects of physical activity and exercise on brain-derived neurotrophic factor in healthy humans: a review. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2014.  24(1): 1-10.

Hopkins ME, et al.  Differential effects of acute and regular physical exercise on cognition and affect.  Neuroscience.  2012.  215: 59-68.

Szuhany KL, Bugatti M, Otto MW.  A meta-analytic review of the effects of exercise on brain derived neurotrophic factor.  J Psychiatr Res.  2015.  60: 56-64.

Yarrow JF, et al.  Training augments resistance exercise induced elevation of circulating brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF).  Neurosci Lett.  2010.  479(2): 161-5.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Get a FREE Nutrition Assessment!

Get a quick personal nutrition assessment and find out how many calories and macros you need to achieve your fitness and lifestyle goals!

Book Now