The exercise-glucocorticoid paradox: How exercise is beneficial to cognition, mood, and the brain while increasing glucocorticoid levels

Front Neuroendocrinol. 2017 Jan:44:83-102. doi: 10.1016/j.yfrne.2016.12.001. Epub 2016 Dec 9.


Exercise is known to have beneficial effects on cognition, mood, and the brain. However, exercise also activates the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and increases levels of the glucocorticoid cortisol (CORT). CORT, also known as the "stress hormone," is considered a mediator between chronic stress and depression and to link various cognitive deficits. Here, we review the evidence that shows that while both chronic stress and exercise elevate basal CORT levels leading to increased secretion of CORT, the former is detrimental to cognition/memory, mood/stress coping, and brain plasticity, while the latter is beneficial. We propose three preliminary answers to the exercise-CORT paradox. Importantly, the elevated CORT, through glucocorticoid receptors, functions to elevate dopamine in the medial prefrontal cortex under chronic exercise but not chronic stress, and the medial prefrontal dopamine is essential for active coping. Future inquiries may provide further insights to promote our understanding of this paradox.

Keywords: Brain plasticity; Chronic stress; Corticosterone; Cortisol; Depression; Dopamine; Exercise; Glucocorticoid receptor; Medial prefrontal cortex; Wheel running.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Affect / physiology*
  • Animals
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Exercise / physiology*
  • Glucocorticoids / metabolism*
  • Glucocorticoids / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Receptors, Glucocorticoid / metabolism
  • Stress, Psychological / metabolism


  • Glucocorticoids
  • Receptors, Glucocorticoid