Why? A big part has to do with how being active affects the brain. Here are five surprising ways exercise is good for your mind.
The exercise “high” primes you to connect with others
While typically described as a runner’s high, an exercise-induced mood boost is not exclusive to running. Similar good feelings can be found in any sustained physical activity, such as yoga, swimming and dancing.
Scientists long speculated that endorphins are behind the high, but research shows the high is linked to another class of brain chemicals: endocannabinoids (the same chemicals mimicked by cannabis) — what neuroscientists describe as the “don’t worry, be happy” chemical. Endocannabinoids reduce anxiety and induce a state of contentment. These brain chemicals also increase dopamine in the brain’s reward system, which fuels feelings of optimism.
Because endocannabinoids also increase the pleasure we derive from being around others, the exercise high primes us to connect. This makes exercise an excellent way to strengthen relationships. Among married couples, when spouses exercise together, both partners report more closeness later that day, studies show, including feeling loved and supported.
Another study shows that on days when people exercise, they experience more positive interactions with friends and family. As one runner said to me, “My family will sometimes send me out running, as they know that I will come back a much better person.”
Exercise can make your brain more sensitive to joy
Exercise provides a low-dose jolt to the brain’s reward centers — the system that helps you anticipate pleasure, feel motivated and maintain hope. Over time, regular exercise remodels the reward system, leading to higher circulating levels of dopamine and more available dopamine receptors. In this way, exercise can both relieve depression and expand your capacity for joy.
These changes can also repair the neurological havoc wreaked by substance abuse. Substance abuse lowers the level of dopamine in your brain and reduces the availability of dopamine receptors. Exercise can reverse this. In one randomized trial, adults in treatment for methamphetamine abuse participated in an hour of walking, jogging and strength training three times a week. After eight weeks, their brains showed an increase in dopamine receptor availability in the reward system.
Jump-starting the brain’s reward system benefits not just those who struggle with depression or addiction. Adults lose up to 13 percent of the dopamine receptors in the reward system with each passing decade. This loss leads to less enjoyment of everyday pleasures, but physical activity can prevent the decline. Active older adults have reward systems that more closely resemble those of individuals who are decades younger.
Exercise makes you brave
Courage is another side effect of how physical activity changes the brain. Exercise increases connections among areas of the brain that calm anxiety. Regular physical activity can also modify the default state of the nervous system so that it becomes more balanced and less prone to fight, flight or fright.
The latest research even suggests that lactate — a metabolic byproduct of exercise — has positive effects on mental health. After lactate is released by muscles, it travels through the bloodstream to the brain, where it can reduce anxiety and protect against depression.
Sometimes, specific movements allow us to experience ourselves as brave. The mind instinctively makes sense out of physical actions. So much of the language we use to describe courage relies on metaphors of the body: We overcome obstacles and break through barriers. We carry burdens, reach out for help and lift one another up.
When we are faced with adversity or we doubt our own strength, it can help to feel these actions in our bodies. Sometimes we need to climb an actual hill or work together to shoulder a heavy load to know these traits are a part of us.
Moving with others builds trust and belonging
French sociologist Émile Durkheim popularized the term collective effervescence to describe the euphoric self-transcendence individuals feel when they move together in ritual, prayer or work. Group exercise, such as yoga, dance or indoor cycling classes, is one of the most powerful ways to experience this joy.
Moving in the same way, and at the same time, as others triggers a release of endorphins. This is why dancers and rowers who move in sync show an increase in pain tolerance. But endorphins don’t just make us feel good; they help us bond, too. People who share an endorphin rush feel closer to one another afterward. It’s a powerful mechanism for forming friendships, even with people we don’t know.
Many aspects of a group exercise experience amplify the bonding effects of synchronized movement. For example, the more you get your heart rate up, the closer you feel to the people you move with. Adding music enhances the effect. Breathing in unison — as in a yoga or tai chi class — can also increase the feeling of collective joy. If you want to experience a state of belonging and self-transcendence, find a place where you can move, breathe and sweat with others.
Trying a new activity can transform your self-image
Physical accomplishments change how you think about yourself and what you are capable of. One woman I spoke with shared a story about how when she was in her early 20s and severely depressed, she made a plan to take her own life. The day she intended to go through with it, she went to the gym for one last workout. She dead-lifted 185 pounds, a personal best. When she put the bar down, she realized that she didn’t want to die. Instead, she remembers, “I wanted to see how strong I could become.” Five years later, she can dead lift 300 pounds.
If there is a voice in your head saying, “You’re too old, too awkward, too big, too broken, too weak,” sensations from movement can provide a compelling counterargument. When you move with grace, your brain perceives the elongation of your limbs and the fluidity of your steps, and realizes, “I am graceful.” When you move with power, your brain encodes the explosive contraction of muscles, senses the speed of the action and understands, “I am powerful.” To discover a new part of yourself, choose a movement that reflects the qualities you want to develop.
Any form of exercise can lead to these effects. Move in whatever way feels good or makes you feel good about yourself. And know that you are not just strengthening your heart and your muscles. You are also strengthening your capacity to experience happiness, connection and courage.
A version of this piece was originally published in Greater Good Magazine, published by the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California at Berkeley. It was adapted from McGonigal’s book, “The Joy of Movement: How Exercise Helps Us Find Happiness, Hope, Connection, and Courage.” The piece has been edited, with permission, for the Inspired Life blog.
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