As we all know, exercise has many benefits. However, a perk not so many seem to be aware of is the effect exercise has on our mood, or its ability to make us happier, more motivated, more satisfied people.
I’m sure you’ve all heard of the elusive Runner’s High, but it turns out both aerobic and anaerobic exercises are equally effective in making us feel better in the brain. Scientific studies have identified exercise and movement regimens as effective treatments for mental disorders like anxiety and depression. Here are a few of the reasons why:
1. Exercise supports neurotransmitters in the brain.
The neurotransmitters dopamine, noradrenaline, and serotonin are released when we work out. Dopamine is “the happy chemical” that allows humans to feel pleasure, satisfaction, and motivation. Noradrenaline, or norepinephrine, is a hormone that helps counteract stress in the body and improve cognitive function. Serotonin plays the King's role in our body when it comes to mood and regulation of brain reward pathways. Clearly, all 3 of these neurotransmitters are associated with happiness and good feelings, and the more we exercise, the more we modulate these specific neurotransmitters, meaning we increase the brain's receptivity to their activity. Simply put, exercise makes it easier for us to feel joy.
2. Exercise boosts endorphins.
Exercise releases endorphins that mimic the same effects as morphine. These are the same endorphins released when we break a bone or injure ourselves, the ones that allow us relief from the excruciating pain that should be screaming at us in that situation. Turns out, we don’t have to hurt ourselves to release this strong natural drug. All it takes is a quick 20 to 30 minutes of moderate effort to trigger the release of these endorphins. Aerobic exercise like jogging or anaerobic exercise like weight training can do the trick. Isn’t it crazy? Your body will reward you for your efforts, almost like a big thank you for taking care of yourself.
3. Exercise reduces inflammation.
Low-impact exercises like yoga and swimming can help to reduce inflammation in the body, which often fuels depression. Other sorts of exercise may cause inflammation in the joints and muscles but still have anti-inflammatory effects by boosting the immune system and powering our cells to fight off sickness. When the body feels good, our brain is more likely to follow suit.
4. Exercise decreases stress.
Exercise lowers cortisol levels associated with stress and acts as a healthy, productive outlet to let off steam when we’re feeling overwhelmed. That neurotransmitter noradrenaline mentioned earlier does the job to counteract cortisol, said stress hormone.
If you’re looking for this extra mood booster and wondering where you should start, try having fun with it, trying different activities that get your blood pumping and muscles working, and find the one you enjoy the most because the truth is that the best way to reap these happy benefits is to workout consistently, and you’re most likely to be consistent with a form of movement that you thoroughly enjoy. A study conducted by exercise scientists concluded that there are not significant enough findings to prove that one type of exercise is more effective than another, but rather it might be unique to each person and which type of workout they are most likely to stick to and perform consistently. Similarly, scientists at Harvard said when referencing exercise as a treatment for depression that it’s “a long-term treatment, not a one-time fix.” So it’s clear, as with all things in life, that consistency is key.
If you’re interested in learning more healthy and natural ways to increase happiness, check out The Huberman Lab podcast episode, “Science-Based Tools for Increasing Happiness.” I’m also learning more about the link between exercise and happiness by reading the book, The Joy of Movement, by Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D.
“Exercise is An All-Natural Treatment to Fight Depression.” Harvard Health Publishing. 2 Feb. 2021, https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/exercise-is-an-all-natural-treatment-to-fight-depression#:~:text=It's%20unclear%20how%20long%20you,over%20time%2C%22%20advises%20Dr.
Martinson, Egil, et al. “Comparing Aerobic With Nonaerobic Forms of Exercise in the Treatment of Clinical Depression: A Randomized Trial.” Comprehensice Psychiatry, Vol. 30, No. 4, 1989, pp. 324-331.