From Fast Company. An explanation of why exercise makes us feel good when we are 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 recognizes 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 things are clear after exercising and eventually happy.
At the same time, endorphins, another chemical to fight stress, is released in your brain. Your endorphins main purpose is this writes researcher McGovern:
These endorphins tend to minimize the discomfort of exercise, block the feeling of pain and are even associated with a feeling of euphoria.
Overall, there is a lot going on inside our brain and it is in fact oftentimes a lot more active than when we are just sitting down or actually concentrating mentally:
So, now we know there are at least two mechanisms that cause happiness after exercise.
Here’s the depressing part: All that working out doesn’t really do a lot of good (for your mood, that is) unless you are doing it in the morning:
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 course how we can trigger this in an optimal and longer lasting way.
A recent study from Penn State university 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 work-out regularly, if 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 has written a whole book about the subject matter titled “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 look-out for the next killer work-out. All you have to do is get some 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)
I have to say, I disagree with all of this research, anecdotally, for myself. It would be interesting to measure the amount of these brain chemicals released in individuals, and then see if these later effects follow in proportion.