It’s well known that aerobic exercise has many health benefits and that creating a calorie deficit with a healthy diet and regular exercise is the most effective way to lose weight. What many people might not know is that physical activity is scientifically proven to boost your mood. Exercising makes you happy in two important ways: firstly, it causes your body to release endorphins and dopamine, and secondly, it leads to other great health benefits that cause your body to feel better even when you aren’t exercising.
Read on to find out how much exercise is most likely to create increased positivity, what kinds of exercise are most likely to give you a post-workout mental glow, and what science has to say about the ways exercise is so good for overall mental health.
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This Is Your Brain On Exercise: Physical Activity & Brain Chemistry
Many aspects of your brain chemistry can be altered by physical activity. Endorphins are one of the most well-known hormones in the human body. They’re created by the pituitary gland and they help to regulate our mood and limit the amount of pain we feel. Dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin are also released, which further helps stabilize your mood as well as regulating your sleep cycle and stimulates a feeling of positivity and well-being in our brains.
Other than causing a release of positivity-inducing hormones and neurotransmitters, regular physical activity also limits the production of negative brain chemicals like cortisol and adrenaline, which makes you feel stressed out if there’s too much of it in your system. Adrenaline is meant to put us in defense mode or else give us extra energy to flee from danger, so you’ll feel more stressed and anxious when excess levels of adrenaline are created in your brain.
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Immediate Benefits of Exercise
In addition to the changes in your brain chemistry it causes, physical activity can also boost your immediate mood right when you start exercising. For example, it’s a great distraction from things that are troubling you. Of course, it has to be a workout that’s challenging enough to require your full attention. While distracting yourself from life’s problems certainly won’t solve them, it will give you time to approach them with a clear mind free of overwhelming emotions. That way, you’re more likely to come to a reasonable method for solving the problem.
Beyond just being a distraction, getting a workout will make your body tired in a good way and lead to better sleep. Unlike the effects of alcohol or sleep aids, fatigue from healthy cardio or strength training will make your body fall asleep faster and sleep more fitfully. That means you’ll be in a much better mental state the following day. If your body is getting enough sleep and especially the right proportion of REM sleep, you’ll be more alert and have sharper thinking.
Long-Term Benefits of Exercise
While physical activity can work as a kind of antidepressant or quick pick-me-up in the short term, it also leads to better bodily function and a reduced risk of chronic pain and illness that can cause stress or sadness. If you put great importance on having sculpted muscles or a chiseled physique, then working out will get you some great gains and boost your self-esteem. Even if you aren’t trying to become a bodybuilder, just finding that you’re able to endure long periods of cardio can also boost your self-esteem.
As we age, we become more at risk for diminished cognition, impairment, or even dementia. Regular physical activity gets your brain cells working and greatly reduces the likelihood that your cognitive function will diminish as you progress into old age.
Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor
In the 1950s, scientists discovered a protein called abrineurin, brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF for short. Since then, they’ve gone on to discover other proteins in the same family, each of which targets different groups of neurons in the brain. BDNF preserves the neurons it targets and prevents deterioration, meaning those neurons will keep interacting with receptors and keep your brain functioning better for a longer time.
Exercise promotes the creation of BDNF, which in turn will help boost cognitive function, prevent memory loss, and improve your mood. Lower levels of BDNF in the hippocampus correlate with higher stress levels, which is why exercise works so well as a stress reducer.
How Much Exercise Makes Us Happiest?
Some amount of exercise is better than none. Even low levels of physical activity will have positive impacts on your mood compared to a completely sedentary lifestyle, especially if you can manage to get out into the sunlight and soak up some vitamins in the meantime.
However, research shows that active people are happier the more they exercise up to a certain point. If you go out and over-extend your shoulder joint or lift so much you can’t do anything the next day, you might well undo all the health benefits of exercise and discourage yourself from continuing to work out in the future.
The best way you can improve your mood and boost brain function with exercise is to build an exercise program that will help you meet your health and fitness goals, get your heart rate up, and won’t completely exhaust you. You’ll keep up the program long enough to see long-term improvements and it’s more likely you’ll get that runner’s high if the exercise is just tiring enough.
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How Strength Creates Happiness
Dispensing with the more complex function of brain chemistry, building strength can itself be a route to happiness in addition to all the nice hormones and boosted brain function physical activity brings with it. We’re not talking about getting the kind of body you see on social media ads and in magazines, but rather about getting your body into the best shape possible to get it to work optimally. That might look different for different body types, but everyone will be much happier if they can optimize their body.
Imagine the sense of satisfaction you would get from being able to get through long hikes with friends and family or long periods of swimming without completely losing your breath or exhausting yourself. It’s simply common sense that we’re all going to happy if we can engage in any sort of physical activity without having to bow out from fatigue. The good news is that you don’t have to spend tons of time at the gym 6 days a week just to get your body to a place where you don’t have to worry about getting winded while you’re helping a friend move or playing pick-up basketball with friends or family.
If you have a well-rounded exercise program, you can get your heart rate up while you improve your athletic performance and build enough muscle mass to do common chores and leisure activities well. Of course, if you pair it with the right nutrition plan, you can also lose weight and get a nice-looking physique to go with all that functionality. That kind of high-functioning body will allow you to take life by the horns whenever the opportunity presents itself, a mental health benefit in its own right.
The 5 Best Exercises for Wellness & Positivity
Now that we’ve taken a look at how physical activity works on your brain chemistry to improve your mood and brain function, let’s talk about which exercises are going to do the best job at making you happy.
Any aerobic exercise that keeps your heart rate up for an extended period will do wonders for your body, but biking combines lower leg function with purposeful activity. Although the cycling machine at the gym will work the same muscle groups, getting outdoors and physically traveling from place to place when you go out biking will brighten your outlook and inspire you to keep going through to the end of the exercise.
Not everyone has access to nature trails or roads that are suitable for biking outdoors, which is understandable. If you have to use the bike machine, try not to stay on it for longer than you would if you were able to go biking outside. It will get old pretty quick and that’s a soul-killer when you need to stay motivated to keep returning to the gym.
They call it the runner’s high for a reason. If you have the knees and the time for it, running is some of the best cardiovascular exercises you can get. It works out much more of the body than you probably think. If you add some free weights or run with a weighted backpack, you can get a full-body workout while you’re running.
Running, jogging, or even walking all have similar effects on your overall wellness, but if you’re trying to lose weight you’ll have to keep the pace up. The most active people have made walking a regular part of their life, fitting it in by walking 10,000 steps a day with a pedometer or finding time to run between 3 and 5 times a week.
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3. Strength Training
If you want to get your muscles in the best working order, you’ll have to fit some strength training into your workout routine. Strength training is also one of the most edifying things you can do during a workout program. Imagine starting out not being able to do one pull-up and working up to the point where you can do deadlifts, flip tires, and do pull-ups as long as you want. There are few better feelings of accomplishment.
Strength training is also great for increasing your brain function because it really pushes your body to the limit. Just make sure you don’t bite off more than you can chew. Trying to lift too much weight or lifting that weight with the wrong form is a great way to injure yourself and you aren’t going to be able to work out much during your recovery period if the injury is severe enough.
4. Tai Chi & Yoga
Some of you muscle heads might be quick to dismiss these exercises, but you should give them a try. Not only are they great for additional mindfulness but tai chi and yoga often incorporate elements of isometric exercises that can really improve your muscles’ function and even add muscle mass if you use them the right way.
Tai chi is also a great way to fill up your recovery or rest days or even to warm up before a more rigorous workout routine. Since you’re concentrating on your mental health with the exercises on this list, you might as well throw in a little tai chi for good measure. It’s much more effective than you’re probably thinking. Tai chi is especially effective for people who aren’t ready for or interested in strength training and long-distance cardio like running.
5. Team Sports
One of the best ways to get out of a mental funk is to socialize with other people. Whether they’re people you already know or a group of strangers who get together strictly for this purpose, intramural or community sports programs are the best way to get some exercise into your life that’s fun and interesting.
If you don’t want to buy tons of gear, try a team sport like soccer or volleyball that only requires a ball. Other sports like basketball, baseball, or tennis are great if you live in a neighborhood or community that has invested in some courts you can use. Just make sure you don’t get so competitive that you ruin everyone’s fun.
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Exercise is one of the best ways you can improve your own well-being. It’s not all about weight loss and building tons of muscle mass, although those might be your ultimate goals. Just getting active can boost your mood in the short-term and prevent cognitive degeneration and severe depression in the long term.
In moments of discouragement, many people tend to think that aerobic exercise won’t make any difference unless they can devote three or four hours a day to it. That’s simply not true. Even half an hour of light cardio every day can help boost your mood. If weight loss is a fitness goal of yours, creating a calorie deficit with a healthy diet plan is generally more important than physical activity anyway.
Working out can make a huge difference as part of a weight loss program but you might be surprised to find out just how many calories you’re burning at the gym. Regular exercise keeps your body in great working order and helps build muscle mass that helps prevent injury at critical places like the shoulder joints and in the posterior chain.
The mental health benefits are some of the positive effects of exercise that people tend to notice right away. The impact of physical activity on our overall positivity is so noticeable because it removes some of the stressors that tend to make us feel depressed or anxious. You might have heard of the ‘runner’s high’ that some people experience after long sessions of cardiovascular activity. This is largely due to endorphins being released in the limbic and prefrontal regions of the brain.
Researchers have theorized that we developed this reaction to cardio because it helps us push through blisters and other pain so we can keep running. According to this theory, the humans who developed this reaction were better equipped to escape our natural predators and live to reproduce. Of course, now that we’re mostly just running for the health benefits, we don’t have to run so hard that we develop blisters or cause ourselves pain. But the runner’s high is still a huge help pushing through the harder parts of a long run.
Even the small movements that make up non-exercise activity thermogenesis, or NEAT, can help improve your mood and there does seem to be some correlation between just about all physical activity and a reduced risk for severe depression. Granted, jogging probably won’t save you from ever feeling blue, but it can help you think more clearly and you’ll feel much better in general because your body will be processing nutrients and functioning much more effectively.
Moving around causes our brain chemistry to flood our systems with hormones like endorphins and serotonin that make us feel good and sleep better. Other stress-inducing hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. Aside from all this brain chemistry, building up strength and promoting good muscle function will allow you to do more and that leads to an unparalleled sense of satisfaction.
If you’re looking for the best way to get some exercise into your daily routine, give one of our many Fitplans a shot!
(Note: Want our elite trainers to help you incorporate exercise into your routine? Start your Fitplan free trial today!)