Why does exercise make us feel good?
It’s a common phrase that exercise can make you feel good, for many of us we keep telling ourselves this without actually understanding how this concept works. At a first glance an early wake-up for a cardio session or to go lift some weights might not seem like the most ‘feel good activity’, however, research has shown that even 20 minutes of exercise daily can have significant mental health benefits and here’s why.
Endorphins & other feel good chemicals
‘Endorphins’ is a key term in the fitness industry that is often referred to in the context of exercise. Endorphins are chemicals that are released by the brain in order to relieve stress and pain and therefore are often referred to as natures pain killers. So, what has this got to do with exercise and how do they make us feel good? The answer to that lies in the stress response that exercise induces. When we begin exercising our heart rate increases, breathing becomes more difficult and our muscles activate. This response in the body is detected as a stress response, similar to running away from a threat. In order to combat this feeling, the brain begins to release ‘feel good chemicals’ known as endorphins to protect us from the stress it feels we are inflicting. Endorphins mimic opioid drugs such as morphine and therefore are responsible for a euphoric feeling.
In addition to endorphins the body also releases serotonin, norepinephrine, BDNF and dopamine. These are the ‘pleasure chemicals’ in the brain that we associate with reward. This combination of endorphins and these other chemicals can reduce anxiety and depression, improve our mood and leave us feeling mentally energised.
Whilst our brain is releasing ‘feel good chemicals’ it is also reducing its production of our stress hormones including cortisol and adrenaline. Too much cortisol can cause a general feelings of stress and unease, low mood, depleted energy levels, brain fog and poor concentration. Exercises reduces the production of cortisol to reduce its draining effects.
Adrenaline is a useful chemical when it comes to our fight or flight response. Increased adrenaline in our day to day life however can cause feeling of anxiety and stress. Exercise is a great place to direct adrenaline to convert your anxiety into exercise potential.
Studies have shown that exercise causes GABA levels to increase in the body. Gamma-Aminobutyric acid or much less of a mouthful, GABA, is a neurotransmitter which facilitates communication between cells of the brain. It binds to other chemicals which results in a broad feel good effect including reduced anxiety, balanced mood and feelings of calmness and relaxation. Increased GABA has also been shown to increase our self-control allowing us to set healthier habits in our day to day lives.
Social benefits & self esteem
Exercise can also be a great activity to meet like minded individuals and improve your social health and well-being. Whether its team sports, individual sports in groups or you prefer to exercise alone, participating in exercise can create a sense of belonging in society as well us introduce us to those who have similar interests to us.
In addition to our social health, exercise can also boost our self-esteem and self-confidence. Not only does exercise aid us in working towards our health and fitness goals, it can also be a rewarding feeling to lift heavier, run faster or train harder.
If it’s been a while since you’ve exercise, we have good news, studies show that the mental health gains exercise can provide are greatest when its been a long period without exercising. If you’re a regular trainer, keep going! Ongoing exercise has scientifically been proven to have a plethora or physical and mental benefits for everyone.
Want to read more?
Check out this article for more info on the benefits of exercise for your health mental: