What Happens To Our Brains During Exercise (And Why It Makes Us Happier)

Most of us are aware of what happens to the body when we exercise. We build more muscle or more stamina. We feel how daily activities like climbing stairs becomes easier if we exercise regularly. When it comes to our brain and mood though, the connection isn't so clear. Leo Widrich, co-founder of social media sharing app Buffer, set out to uncover the connection between feeling happy and exercising regularly.

Image remixed from Julien Tromeur (Shutterstock).

What triggers happiness in our brain when we exercise?

"Yes, yes, I know all about it, that's the thing with the endorphins, that makes you feel good and why we should exercise and stuff, right?" is what I can hear myself say to someone bringing this up. I would pick up things here and there, yet really digging into the connection of exercise and how it effects us has never been something I've done. The line around our "endorphins are released" is more something I throw around to sound smart, without really knowing what it means.

Here is what actually happens:

If you start exercising, your brain recognises this as a moment of stress. As your heart pressure increases, the brain thinks you are either fighting the enemy or fleeing from it. To protect yourself and your brain from stress, you release a protein called BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor). This BDNF has a protective and also reparative element to your memory neurons and acts as a reset switch. That's why we often feel so at ease and like things are clear after exercising.

At the same time, endorphins, another chemical to fight stress, are released in your brain. Your endorphins main purpose are this, writes researcher MK McGovern:

"These endorphins tend to minimize the discomfort of exercise, block the feeling of pain, and are even associated with a feeling of euphoria."

There is a lot going on inside our brain and it is oftentimes a lot more active than when we are just sitting down or actually concentrating mentally:

So, BDNF and endorphins are the reasons exercise makes us feel so good. The somewhat scary part is that they have a very similar and addictive behaviour like morphine, heroin or nicotine. The only difference? Well, it's actually good for us.

Don't do more, but focus on when

Now here is where it all gets interesting. We know the basic foundations of why exercising makes us happy and what happens inside our brain cells. The most important part to uncover now is, of how we can trigger this in an optimal and longer lasting way?

A recent study from Penn State shed some light on the matter and the results are more than surprising. They found that to be more productive and happier on a given work day, it doesn't matter so much, if you workout regularly, that you haven't worked out on that particular day:

"Those who had exercised during the preceding month but not on the day of testing generally did better on the memory test than those who had been sedentary, but did not perform nearly as well as those who had worked out that morning."

New York Times best-selling author Gretchen Reynolds wrote a whole book about the subject matter called The First 20 Minutes. To get the highest level of happiness and benefits for health, the key is not to become a professional athlete. On the contrary, a much smaller amount is needed to reach the level where happiness and productivity in every day life peaks:

"The first 20 minutes of moving around, if someone has been really sedentary, provide most of the health benefits. You get prolonged life, reduced disease risk - all of those things come in in the first 20 minutes of being active."

So really, you can relax and don't have to be on the lookout for the next killer work out. All you have to do is get a focused 20 minutes in to get the full happiness boost every day:

"On exercise days, people's mood significantly improved after exercising. Mood stayed about the same on days they didn't, with the exception of people's sense of calm which deteriorated."(University of Bristol)

Make it a habit

Starting to exercise regularly or even daily is still easier said than done. At end of the day, there is quite a lot of focus required to get into the habit of exercising daily. The most important part to note is that exercise is a keystone habit. This means that daily exercise can pave the way not only for happiness, but also growth in all other areas of your life.

In a recent post from my colleague Joel, he wrote about the power of daily exercise for his every day life. Coincidentally, he follows the above rules very accurately and exercises daily before doing anything else. He writes:

"By 9:30am, I've done an hour of coding on the most important task I have right now on Buffer, I've been to the gym and had a great session, and I've done 30 minutes of emails. It's only 9:30am and I've already succeeded, and I feel fantastic."

I've spoken lots to Joel about his habit of exercising and here are some of the most important things to do in order to set yourself up for success and make your daily exercise fun:

  • Put your gym clothes right over your alarm clock or phone when you go to bed: This technique sounds rather simple, but has been one of the most powerful ones. If you put everything the way you want it for the gym before you go to sleep and put your alarm under your gym clothes, you will have a much easier time to convince yourself to put your gym clothes on.
  • Track your exercises and log them at the same time after every exercise: When you try to exercise regularly, the key is to make it a habit. One way to achieve this is to create a so called "reward", that will remind you of the good feelings you get from exercising. In our big list of top web apps, we have a full section on fitness apps that might be handy. Try out Fitocracy or RunKeeper to log your work outs. Try to have a very clear logging process in place. Log your work out just before you go into the shower or exactly when you walk out of the gym.
  • Think about starting small and then start even smaller: Here is a little secret. When I first started exercising, I did it with 5 minutes per day, 3 times a week. Can you imagine that? 5 minutes of timed exercise, 3 times a week? That's nothing you might be thinking. And you are right, because the task is so easy and anyone can succeed with it, you can really start to make a habit out of it. Try no more than 5 or 10 minutes if you are getting started.

The highest level of happiness happens at the beginning

As a quick last fact, exercise, the increase of the BDNF proteins in your brain acts as a mood enhancer. The effects are similar to drug addiction one study found. So when you start exercising, the feeling of euphoria is the highest:

"The release of endorphins has an addictive effect, and more exercise is needed to achieve the same level of euphoria over time." (McGovern)

So, if you have never exercised before (or not for a long time), your happiness gains will be the highest if you start now.

What happens to our brains when we exercise (and how it makes us happier) [Buffer]

Leo Widrich is the co-founder of Buffer, a smarter way to share on Twitter and Facebook. Leo writes more posts on efficiency and customer happiness over on the Buffer blog. Hit him up on Twitter @LeoWid anytime; he is a super nice guy.

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Comments

    I do agree with the article and have been regularly going 30 min walks at lunch time and also riding a bike early in the evenings and weekends. I does improve my well being.

    I find articles like this interesting if only because they rarely correspond to my own experiences.
    I have never found that exercising makes me feel good, either during or after; just tired.

      I am the same. I've recently started back at the gym (last time was at least 5 years ago). Every single time, someone says "Oh yeah, it hurts, but you feel _great_ afterwards." In all my years, I'm yet to experience this supposed greatness. I'd like a study into why it _doesn't_ work for people like you and I.

    The key to exercise, especially if you're just starting out, is keep it simple and easy, as you need to build the habit of doing it before you start pushing your limits.
    Once exercise becomes routine you're no longer burdened with the mental stress of being outside your comfort zone and it's easier to cope with exertion.

    Beware personal trainers who try to give you overly complex routines, or want to change your routine regularly- this is so you stay dependent on their services, not for your benefit.

    I go to the gym 2-3 times a week for weights, and jog another 2-3 nights in between, it's great for reducing anxiety and stress (as per the article)

    +1 for The First 20 Minutes: Surprising Science Reveals How We Can: Exercise Better, Train Smarter, Live Longer.

    I've just finished reading it and unlike many self improvement type books it is actually quite fun - she is quite humorous - as well as being genuinely informative.

    I enjoy my time at the gym. I normally go for an hour to an hour and a half and afterwards I do feel tired physically but mentally I feel much more alert. Also I feel good about myself as I see my body improving in subtle ways.

    I've never been anything but grumpy after exercise.

    I am sure there are different types of exercises. Perhaps those not getting the happiness benefit are just doing the "wrong" ones. As an extreme example, lifting bricks while sitting on a public toilet seat can be called exercise, but that's hardly fun and is likely to detract from the happiness benefits of exercising. But things like going for a jog along the beach, a walk in the park or cycling through a nice neighbourhood should all be pleasant enough to not offset the happiness benefit of exercising. Obviously.

    I don't see this working for everyone, nor for myself. When I can get motivated to actually tackle some prolonged physical activity that makes my heart beat faster and produces a sweat, I soon feel out of breath and extremely uncomfortable; ie, the opposite effect of that described in the article. Repeated episodes such as this just seem to feed and deepen my depression.

    Last year I lost 25 kg in 6 months. I started by walking until I became puffed counting the steps, calculating 80% and doing that until I felt I could increase the no of steps. I kept a record of the steps and time and found that over time the time for the steps was reducing. After about 3 months I had built up to doing 30 minutes most days of the week. Some weeks I did the walking every day. Since then I have had to stop my exercise as I have severe pain due to severe ostoarthritis in a hip. I can only walk for no more than 5 minutes and that is at at least half the pace I was last year. I used to be able to walk to the other side of town in about 7 -8 minutes. Now it takes me over 15 minutes. This was as part of a trial program run by a university here in Aus. I was told to keep it small and achievable and so that I would not give up. And it worked until the pain was as it is now too much to do much at all. When I have the hip replacement I know I will be given exercises by a physiotherapist at the hospital it is done at. But when I am on my own I will return to those guidelines and return to exercising 30 minutes most days a week.

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