Can CrossFit be good for your Brain/Mental Health?

How CrossFit is not only good for your physical health, but also your brain and mental health.
Joel Stacey
November 17, 2023
Can CrossFit be good for your Brain/Mental Health?

Most people who start CrossFit tell me the following. I want to lose weight, get stronger, be there for my family. All great reasons to start CrossFit. So, how can CrossFit help me with my mental health and more importantly my brain? We often joke about this being the Best Hour Of Your Day. This is because of the endorphin release we get once class is done. However, the question remains, how can CrossFit be good for my brain and mental health? Well, some exciting new research regarding the muscle brain crosstalk. While this is very new, please consider the following:

Muscle-Brain Crosstalk

Muscle-brain crosstalk refers to the biochemical communication between skeletal muscles and the brain. When you exercise, your muscles are not just passively contracting and relaxing; they are actively producing and releasing various substances, including proteins known as myokines.


Myokines are a type of cytokine, which are small proteins released by cells that have specific effects on the interactions and communications between cells. When muscles contract during exercise, they release myokines into the bloodstream. Once in circulation, these myokines can exert effects on various organs and tissues, including the brain.

Effects of Myokines on the Brain and Mood

  1. Neurogenesis and Brain Health: Some myokines are believed to promote the growth of new neurons (neurogenesis), particularly in the hippocampus, a brain region vital for memory and learning. This can contribute to improved cognitive function and has potential implications for neurodegenerative diseases.
  2. Reduction of Inflammation: Chronic inflammation is linked to a range of health issues, including depression. Myokines can have anti-inflammatory effects, which might help reduce inflammation in the brain and thus have a positive impact on mood disorders.
  3. Stress Response Regulation: Exercise-induced myokines may help regulate the body's stress response. By modulating this response, they can potentially reduce the negative effects of chronic stress on the brain, which is beneficial for mental health.
  4. Enhancement of Brain Plasticity: Brain plasticity, or neuroplasticity, is the brain's ability to change and adapt throughout life. Certain myokines are thought to enhance neuroplasticity, which can lead to better mental health, improved learning, and memory.
  5. Mood Regulation: Some myokines may directly influence mood-regulating pathways in the brain. While the exact mechanisms are still being researched, it's clear that the biochemical changes initiated by these muscle-derived factors can have significant effects on mental well-being.

Research and Future Directions

The study of myokines is relatively new, and much of the research is still in its early stages. Scientists are actively working to identify specific myokines released during exercise and to understand their precise roles and mechanisms of action. This research holds promise not only for understanding how exercise benefits mental health but also for developing new treatments for mental health disorders and other conditions.

In summary, muscle-brain crosstalk and the action of myokines offer a compelling explanation for some of the systemic benefits of exercise, particularly its positive effects on brain health and mood. As research in this area continues to evolve, it will likely provide deeper insights into how physical activity can be optimized for mental health benefits.

Still not convinced that CrossFit can have a positive affect on your brain and mental health? I realize the research above is brand new. Well, I ask you to consider the following. Have you ever wonder why we do squats, deadlifts, clean and jerks, and the snatch? Besides building better athletes these lifts specifically have the greatest effect on the neuroendocrine response. So, how does the neuroendocrine response effect my brain and mental health? Well please consider the following:

Neuroendocrine Response to Exercise

When you engage in physical activity, your body's nervous system communicates with the endocrine system to regulate various physiological processes. This involves the release of hormones and other signaling molecules that affect energy metabolism, muscle growth, stress response, and overall homeostasis. Key components of this response include:

  1. Activation of the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) Axis: Exercise stimulates the HPA axis, leading to the release of cortisol, a stress hormone. While chronic high levels of cortisol can be harmful, the acute, transient increase in cortisol during exercise is typically beneficial, helping to mobilize energy and maintain homeostasis.
  2. Release of Growth Hormone and Testosterone: These hormones are crucial for muscle growth and repair. They also play roles in energy metabolism and overall physical fitness.
  3. Increased Endorphin Levels: Exercise stimulates the production of endorphins, natural painkillers and mood elevators, which are often credited for the "runner's high" and general mood improvement post-exercise.

Why Snatch, Clean, Deadlift, and Squat Elicit High Neuroendocrine Responses

Exercises like the snatch, clean, deadlift, and squat are known for eliciting a strong neuroendocrine response for several reasons:

  1. Compound Movements: These exercises are compound movements, meaning they engage multiple large muscle groups simultaneously. This extensive muscle engagement demands more energy and triggers a more significant hormonal response.
  2. High Intensity: These exercises are typically performed with high intensity, which has been shown to have a greater impact on the neuroendocrine system compared to low-intensity exercises.
  3. Stress on the Musculoskeletal System: These exercises place significant stress on the musculoskeletal system, which in turn stimulates a stronger hormonal response, particularly in the release of growth hormone and testosterone.

Positive Effects on Mental Health

The neuroendocrine response to exercises like the snatch, clean, deadlift, and squat can have several positive effects on mental health:

  1. Stress Reduction: The activation of the HPA axis and the subsequent release of cortisol in a controlled, exercise-induced manner can help in managing stress more effectively.
  2. Mood Enhancement: The increase in endorphins can lead to mood improvements, reduction in pain perception, and a feeling of euphoria.
  3. Improved Self-Esteem and Cognitive Function: The hormonal changes that support muscle growth and energy metabolism can also contribute to improved self-esteem, body image, and cognitive function.
  4. Resilience to Mental Health Challenges: Regular engagement in intense physical activity can improve overall mental resilience, helping individuals to better cope with anxiety, depression, and stress.
  5. Sleep and Appetite Regulation: Regular physical activity, especially when it includes intense exercises, can help regulate sleep patterns and appetite, both of which are crucial for mental health.

Finally, there is a third reason why CrossFit can help with our brain and mental health. Consider the release of neurotransmitters like, serotonin and norepinephrine.

Neurotransmitter Regulation

  1. Serotonin:
  2. Role in Mental Health: Serotonin is often called the "feel-good" neurotransmitter. It plays a crucial role in mood regulation, as well as in sleep, appetite, and digestion. Low levels of serotonin are associated with depression, anxiety, and sleep disorders.
  3. Exercise and Serotonin: Physical activity increases the rate of serotonin production and release. The exact mechanism isn't fully understood, but it's believed that moderate exercise increases the firing rates of serotonin neurons, which leads to increased release and synthesis of serotonin. Additionally, exercise can increase the levels of tryptophan in the brain, which is a precursor to serotonin.
  4. Norepinephrine:
  5. Role in Mental Health: Norepinephrine is both a hormone and a neurotransmitter. It's crucial for attention, focus, and responding to stress. It's also involved in the body's "fight or flight" response. Like serotonin, imbalances in norepinephrine levels are linked to depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders.
  6. Exercise and Norepinephrine: Exercise stimulates the autonomic nervous system, leading to an increase in the production and release of norepinephrine. This increase is thought to enhance mood, attention, and cognitive function, as well as playing a role in the body's stress response.

Health Benefits of Serotonin and Norepinephrine

  1. Improved Mood and Emotional Regulation: Both serotonin and norepinephrine are targeted by many antidepressant medications. By balancing these neurotransmitters, exercise can help improve mood, reduce feelings of depression, and enhance overall emotional well-being.
  2. Enhanced Cognitive Function: Norepinephrine plays a key role in attention and focus. By increasing norepinephrine levels, exercise can improve cognitive functions such as concentration, memory, and the ability to learn.
  3. Better Stress Response: Norepinephrine is crucial in the body's ability to handle stress. Exercise, by regulating norepinephrine, can improve resilience to stress.
  4. Improved Sleep and Appetite: Serotonin is involved in regulating sleep cycles and appetite, both of which can be disrupted in depression and anxiety. Exercise, by balancing serotonin levels, can help normalize sleep patterns and appetite.

There you have it. 3 compelling reasons to get to the gym. Not just for big biceps and chiseled abs. It is literally good for your brain and mental health and proves it truly is your BEST HOUR OF THE DAY. So, the next time the demons creep in and tell you the lies of why you shouldn't go to the gym. Tell them to shut up and you're going anyway! Because you want to be the best you inside and out!

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