Exercise And Happiness: The Brain Science Behind It

brain-science-of-exercise-and-happiness
Physically active people are happier. Also, they have better life-satisfaction, and higher self-esteem. It is exercise itself that infuses us with happiness.

Exercise reduces depression, anxiety, stress and panic; it betters mental processing, creates longer life, improves sleep quality, and strengthens the immune system.

Positive psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky says, “Research demonstrates that exercise may be the most reliable happiness booster of all activities.”

“But how does it make us happier?”

The Brain Science Of Exercise

“This is how. It’s actually the chemicals that give us a happiness boost.”

“What chemicals?”

“The brain-chemicals – the neurochemicals!”

“Do they make us happy, as we exercise?”

“Sure, they do!”

It happens this way: exercise increases blood flow to our brains, lifts our moods, forms new neurons, and releases some vital brain chemicals as endorphin. Of all the ways that give us a rush of happiness while we exercise, this neurochemical mechanism comes first.

John Ratey, the world-famous exercise researcher, says, “Exercise generates the release of serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine in the brain. Exercise increases the brain’s learning and memory capacities. People’s mood significantly increased after exercising.”

People's mood significantly increased after exercising.- John Ratey Click To Tweet

As we exercise, a bunch of chemicals are released into the brain. Most significant of these are:

  1. Serotonin
  2. Norepnephrine
  3. Dopamine
  4. BDNF
  5. Leptin
  6. Endorphin

The First Three

The first three brain chemicals on the list above give us that surge – a mix of excitement, giddiness, and euphoria.

  1. Serotonin is a natural mood-enhancer.
  2. Dopamine helps us see rewards of an activity and motivates us towards doing it; it is the driving neurotransmitter in competitive behaviors.
  3. Norepinephrine is our acute-stress hormone, and it increases heart rate, triggers release of glucose from energy stores, and increases blood flow to our skeletal muscle.

The Fouth One

BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor), the 4th one on that list above, is perhaps the most interesting one, which the scientists say repairs the memory neurons. This chemical could be the reason a bout of exercise clears our thoughts and reboots our thinking patterns.

Exercise researcher MK McGovern says, “One of the most exciting changes that exercise causes is neurogenesis, creation of new neurons. The new neurons are created in the hippocampus, the center of learning and memory in the brain.”

But McGovern warns that you can’t overexercise your way to a brilliant memory, because beyond a certain point the BDNF doesn’t increase any more with exercise.

The Last Two

Leptin has a role to give us that runner’s high, as proposed recently by researcher Stephanie Fulton at University of Montreal Hospital Research Centre in August 2015. Usually, the more body fat, the more leptin, and the less we feel like eating or moving.

So, when leptin levels are high, your brain gets the message that it has enough food — and you stay put in your couch. But when leptin levels are low, the brain gets a signal to run and keep running (as our jungle-living ancestors did for searching food).

Low leptin levels motivate us to exercise and make it easier to get feelings of elation, the runner’s high.

And, of course, we must talk of the role played by endorphins. Endorphins release into the brain during sustained, vigorous exercise. When we exercise, our sympathetic nervous system triggers a flight-or-fight-or freeze response; as a result, the endorphins flow into the brain.

Endorphins, called body’s own natural antidepressant, ease the mental and physical pain.

While they minimize the discomfort of exercise and block the feeling of pain, they so much as make us feel a little euphoric – known as “post-exercise high.”

The Crux Of It

Almost immediately on starting exercise, a neurochemical orchestrated euphoria sets off. This euphoric effect is greatest in the beginning, but it can last long till waning off.

So, if you want to feel happy now, get a short bout of exercise. In 20 minutes, you’ll find yourself happier and peppier.

As a bonus, you get to keep the positive mood benefits of those 20 minutes for up to twelve hours.

“So, there it goes – exercise gives you a rush of happiness via brain chemicals.”

Running quote

Next Up, SMILE

SMILE stands for Standard Medical Intervention & Long-term Exercise. In the year 2000, Michael Babyak and his team conducted an exercise study. They chose 156 people suffering from depression, with ages 50 to 77 years. Each had a clinical diagnosis of major depressive disorder (MDD).

The researchers divided them into three random groups:

  • Exercise Group (Group A): They received instructions to do aerobic exercise, 45 min a day for 3 times a week.
  • Medication Group (Group B): This group was to take their regular antidepressant medicines.
  • Combination Group (Group C): These were to follow a combination of the aerobics and antidepressants.

The exercise group spent 30 minutes either riding a stationary bike or walking or jogging 3 times a week. The anti-depressant used by the medication group was sertraline, a SSRI class drug commonly used to treat depression.

Results after 4 months showed improvement in all the 3 groups — all felt happier and better, and less depressed. No surprise there.

After 10 months, however, reports that started coming in were nothing short of unexpected. 38% of those on only antidepressants went back into depression again. A similar thing happened to 31% of those on combination therapy.

However, those who only exercised, Group A, their relapse into depression was the least — a surprising 9%.

So, does that mean we can exercise to cure our depression? To answer that, and explain the results of this study, Tal Ben-Shahar in his 2010 book Even Happier writes, “Is exercising, then, like taking an antidepressant? Not exactly. In essence, not exercising is like taking a depressant.”

Not exercising is like taking a depressant. - Tal Ben-Shahar Click To Tweet

To gain optimal amount of happiness from it, do regular exercise for at least 20 minutes a day. If you’re interested in finding happiness in other ways, you can check out these 10 science-backed happiness hacks.

Once again, the secret to finding happiness from exercise is: 20 minutes, every day.

The How Of The Why

“But how does it happen really? What do these chemicals do to give us that lift?”

  1. Self-mastery – We feel better in control of our bodies and the capabilities of our bodies. In turn, this makes us feel better in control over our circumstances.
  2. Distraction – Exercise distracts us from negative thought patterns as worrying and overthinking, and thereby cuts down our stress.
  3. Social contact – Exercising with a friend or family or a group provides the chance of increased social contact, which we know makes us happier.
  4. Strength & stamina – With regular exercise, we witness the growth of our strength and stamina. This boosts our goal-achievement confidence, which spills over to other areas of our life.

Jumping-For-Joy-Exercise-For-Happiness

Final Words

Recently, a new study revealed how exercise helps the body remove toxic substances linked to stress-related depression. The research was published in the scientific journal Cell.

The paper writes (warning – scientific jargon ahead): Here, we describe a mechanism by which skeletal muscle PGC-1α1 induced by exercise training changes kynurenine metabolism and protects from stress-induced depression. Activation of the PGC-1α1-PPARα/δ pathway increases skeletal muscle expression of kynurenine aminotransferases, thus enhancing the conversion of kynurenine into kynurenic acid, a metabolite unable to cross the blood-brain barrier. Reducing plasma kynurenine protects the brain from stress-induced changes associated with depression and renders skeletal muscle-specific PGC-1α1 transgenic mice resistant to depression induced by chronic mild stress or direct kynurenine administration.

Researchers at Sweden’s Karolinska Institutet have found that exercise causes important changes in skeletal muscles. These changes help to purge the blood of substances harmful to the brain which build up during stress.

Dr. Jorge Ruas, who led the study, said: “Our initial research hypothesis was that trained muscle would produce a substance with beneficial effects on the brain. We actually found the opposite: well-trained muscle produces an enzyme that purges the body of harmful substances.”

Well-trained muscle purges the body of harmful substances. Click To Tweet

“Okay. That about sums it up: Exercise for Happiness.”

“One last thing – Sleep. That’s an exercise too. Sleep at least 6 hours a day. Better still, sleep for 8 hours.”

Having difficulty starting an exercise habit, or sticking to one? Learn How To Make Exercise A Daily Habit in this exhaustive post of 2700+ words (with downloadable PDF).

Further Reading:

  1. Psychology of Physical Activity: Determinants, Wellbeing and Interventions – Biddle and Mutrie (2007)
  2. SPARK: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain – John Ratey (2008)

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