Exercise And Happiness: The Brain Science Behind It

People’s moods significantly increased after exercising. – John Ratey, Expert in Neuropsychiatry, Harvard Medical School

Is there any truth to the link between exercise and happiness? Is it possible to exercise for happiness? What does psychology have to say about it?

Before we begin, take note that a study released in late 2021 found walking for 40 minutes merely three times a week significantly renewed brain white matter and improved memory (at least among folks over 60.)

The study shows those who remain sedentary tend to have their brain’s white matter fray and shrink (White matter plasticity in healthy older adults: The effects of aerobic exercise, 2021).

Does Exercise Increase Happiness?

Yes. Studies about exercise and happiness show physically active people are happier. They have better life satisfaction and higher self-esteem. It is the exercise that infuses them with happiness.

Exercise and 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, the author of The How of Happiness, says,

Research demonstrates that exercise may be the most reliable happiness booster of all activities.

“But how does exercising make us happier?”

6 Brain Chemicals of Happiness From Exercise

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

“What chemicals?”

“The brain chemicals – the neurochemicals!”

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

“Sure, they do!”

This is how it happens. Exercise increases blood flow to our brains, improves our emotions, creates new neurons, and produces important brain chemicals such as endorphins. This neurochemical mechanism comes first among all the strategies to offer us a rush of euphoria while exercising.

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.

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

  1. Serotonin (5-HT)
  2. Norepinephrine (NE)
  3. Dopamine (DA)
  4. BDNF
  5. Leptin
  6. Endorphin
Exercise and Happiness

3 Common Happiness Chemicals of Exercise

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

1. Serotonin (5-HT) is a natural mood enhancer.

2. Dopamine (DA) helps us see the rewards of an activity and motivates us towards doing it. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that drives our competitive behaviors.

3. Norepinephrine (NE) is our acute stress hormone, and it increases heart rate, triggers the release of glucose from energy stores, and increases blood flow to our skeletal muscles.

4th Happiness Chemical of Exercise

4. 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 that bouts of exercise clear our thoughts and reboot our thinking patterns.

Exercise researcher MK McGovern says:

“One of the most exciting changes that exercise causes is neurogenesis, the 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 anymore with exercise.

2 More Happy Chemicals of Exercise

5. Leptin’s role is to give us that runner’s high, as proposed recently by researcher Stephanie Fulton at the 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 on 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 for food). Low leptin levels motivate us to exercise and make it easier to get feelings of elation, the runner’s high.

6. Endorphins: And, of course, we must talk of the role played by exercise on happiness by the endorphins. Endorphins are released 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.

Exercise and happiness have a deep relationship with endorphins, which are also called the body’s own natural antidepressant. Endorphins ease mental and physical pain and help boost happiness.

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

Exercising For Happiness: Now And Later

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

  1. So, if you want to feel happy now, get a short bout of exercise. In 20 minutes, you’ll find yourself happier and peppier.
  2. As a bonus, you get to keep the positive mood benefits of those minutes for up to twelve hours.

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

Running quote

Exercise And Happiness: The SMILE Study

SMILE stands for Standard Medical Intervention & Long-term Exercise. In 2000, Michael Babyak and his team conducted an exercise study. They chose 156 people suffering from depression, between the ages of 50 to 77 years. Each had a clinical diagnosis of a 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, 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 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, an SSRI class drug commonly used to treat depression.

The results after 4 months showed improvement in all the 3 groups —all felt happier and better, and less depressed. No surprises 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, for those who only exercised, in 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

Exercise officially makes you happier, but you have to do regular exercise for at least 20 minutes a day to gain the optimal amount of happiness from it.

Let’s say that once again: The secret to finding happiness from exercise: 20 minutes each day, for 5 days a week.

4 Reasons Why Exercise Makes You Happier

“But how does it really happen? 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 such 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 and 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.

A Mega Research On Exercise And Happiness

This was a 2018 study involving 1.2 million people from the USA who were 18+ years of age.

The researchers wanted to find any clear relation between exercise and mental health. People were asked to answer this question:

How many times have you felt mentally unwell in the past 30 days, for example, due to stress, depression, or emotional problems?

The findings were nothing short of a surprise:

  • People who exercised had 43·2% fewer days of poor mental health in the past month than those who did not exercise. In other words, those who exercised reported feeling bad for 35 days a year, which was 18 days less than the non-exercising participants.
  • Those who played in groups or teams had better positive effects on their mental health.
  • The study also found that physical activity contributes to better mental well-being only when it includes between 3 to 5 sessions per week, each lasting 30 to 60 minutes — not more.

Final Words

Exercise and the Brain

Exercise makes us happier, as science shows clearly. Not only that, but exercise also protects us from depression.

“So, now you know the brain science behind exercise and happiness, one last thing—have a full night’s sleep for the best results!

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Author Bio: Written and reviewed by Sandip Roy—a medical doctor, psychology writer, and happiness researcher. Founder and Chief Editor of The Happiness Blog. Writes popular science articles on happiness, positive psychology, and related topics.

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