Anyone who has ever gone on a run will be familiar with that "runner's high” feeling - that euphoric sense you get after a jog where you feel on top of the world. And that post-workout good mood isn't just anecdotal: Over the years, scientific research has found that, in addition to physical benefits like living longer, exercise actually does help boost your mood.
There's nothing like an exercise-induced "endorphin rush”, but the endorphins only explain a small part. There are many other ways exercise makes us happier -- by lowering stress levels, reducing feelings of loneliness and isolation, and helping people relieve anxiety and depression, among other benefits.
What exercise does to the brain
Researchers have been looking into the link between exercise and emotions for several decades. One conclusive and undeniable truth has emerged from these studies: What everyone agrees on at this point is that exercise has the ability to change your mood because it has a dramatic impact on your brain.
When you exercise, your heart rate increases and your body pumps more oxygen to your brain. That process can affect your overall positivity, as multiple studies have found that a well-oxygenated brain helps manage anxiety and depression. Other studies have found that exercise may help alleviate depression and anxiety.
Research has also shown that after just 20 or 30 minutes of aerobic exercise, your body releases chemicals called endorphins that interact with receptors in your brain that reduce your perception of pain—meaning you're more likely to feel positive and upbeat during a tough workout. It also releases other mood-enhancing chemicals like serotonin and dopamine that can stick around in your brain for a couple of hours after you exercise.
But all of those chemicals are only the beginning. While exercise does have those short-lived mental health benefits, it also changes the structure and function of your brain over time. The general consensus is that a multitude of beneficial and chronic changes for a healthier brain and mind can happen if you exercise for an hour a day, three days a week.
Exercise generates new brain cell in your hippocampus, the region of the brain involved with memory and learning. Because the hippocampus manages your amygdala which regulates your emotions, optimising it make you more likely to feel emotionally stable in the long term. So exercise impacts your brain both in the moment and structurally over time.
Movement helps you bond with others
Movement itself primes you to connect with others. That's just the brain chemistry of it. When you get your heart rate up, when you use your body, when you engage your muscles, it changes your brain chemistry in a way that makes it easier to connect with others and bond, trust other people. It enhances social pleasures like a high five, laughing or a hug.
Follow a few fitness trainers or fitness influencer accounts on social media, and you'll see them use words like "fitness family”. The term usually refers to a group of people you workout with regularly, that you also consider a friend or like family because you've bonded over your love of the same workout. This is due in a large part to what happens in your brain when you exercise with other people.
Whoever you move with, whether it's a walking group or maybe a group class, because of the way exercise alters our brain chemistry and outlook, you start to feel a true sense of connection with the people that you're moving with. It's why people will talk so positively about people who they exercise with. Because it really does give us a sense of belonging, it helps build relationships that can be true friendships and sources of support.
It can mean more than just having a group of people you can depend on to work out with you. When you connect with people that have shared values (like valuing your health and wellness) and interests (for whatever type of workout you do), there's automatically a better chance that your relationship will be even stronger since you share these things. And science has shown time and time again that having strong relationships and connections in life is one of the most important factors in overall happiness.
Exercise helps to reduce anxiety and depression
You've probably heard that exercise increases endorphins, but it also increases many more brain chemicals that make you feel happy. When you exercise, it increases endorphins, dopamine, adrenaline and endocannabinoids -- these are all brain chemicals associated with feeling happy, feeling confident, feeling capable, feeling less anxiety and stress and even less physical pain
Another chemical that is shown to help relieve stress and boost happiness is myokine, which your body creates when your muscles contract. These myokines begin to change the function and structure of your brain in ways that make you more resilient to stress and can help people recover from depression and even anxiety disorders.
Exercise can help boost your confidence
When it comes to feeling happier and empowered in life, having confidence is key.
Exercise helps boost your confidence because when you workout, you're doing something challenging along with other people (ideally) which gives you a sense of shared accomplishment and teamwork.
When you move with other people it creates a strong sense of 'bigger than self' possibility that makes people feel more optimistic and empowered.”And it allows people to feel more empowered about facing the challenges in their own lives. And that's an interesting side benefit of moving with other people, because there's an embodied sense of 'we're in this together' that translates into self-confidence and the ability to take on challenges in your life.
What kinds of exercise are best for happiness?
While all physical activity is beneficial, aerobic activity (that’s cardio exercises like running, cycling, or swimming) seem to be best for your brain, though it's important to acknowledge that could be because there are simply more studies done on aerobic activity at this point in time. Research has also shown that yoga and tai chi have a similarly positive effect on the brain as aerobic exercise.
Do the exercise you like the most because you will actually do it in the first place—and doing something, whatever it is, is pretty much always better than doing nothing. That, coupled with other healthy practices like getting enough sleep, eating a brain-healthy diet, reducing stress, and setting aside time to maintain fulfilling relationships, will help guarantee that your brain and mental well-being are in great shape for years to come.
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