Exercise And Happiness: The Brain Science Behind It

Is there any real science behind exercise and happiness? Can you exercise for happiness? What does psychology say about exercising for happiness?

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 exercise that infuses them with happiness.

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

exercise and happiness

Positive psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky, 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?”

Six 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!”

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

Three 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 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.

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Fourth 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 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.

Two More Happy Chemicals of Exercise

5. Leptin has a role to give us that runner’s high, as proposed recently by researcher Stephanie Fultonat 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.

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

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

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

Exercising For Happiness: Now And Later

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.

  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 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).

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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

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

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

4 Reasons Why Exercise Makes You Happier

“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 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 USA who were 18+ years of age.

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The researchers wanted to find any clear relation between exercise and mental health. The 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 effect on their mental health.
  • The study also found 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, 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!

Check out these 10 Secret (But Scientific) Happiness Hacks!

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Author Bio: Written and reviewed by Sandip Roy – a medical doctor, psychology writer, happiness researcher. Founder of Happiness India Project, chief editor of its blog. Writes popular science articles on happiness, positive psychology, and related topics.

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