Physical exercise improves mood and cognitive functioning and protects the brain from the effects of aging. Learn how vital exercise is to mental health.
According to a Harris Poll, only one-third of Americans consider themselves “very happy.” (1)
It’s estimated that one in ten of us takes a prescription antidepressant like Prozac or Zoloft. (2)
That means there are a whole lot of us who could be a lot happier.
Whether you experience an anxiety or depressive disorder or just aren’t as happy as you’d like to be, physical exercise can help.
Our bodies are meant to move and our sedentary lifestyle isn’t just making us less healthy, it’s making us less happy.
Exercise doesn’t just keep our bodies fit, it keep our minds fit as well.
Exercise might be the most important thing you do to keep your brain in shape — even more important than mental stimulation.
And a healthy brain is the first line of defense against stress, anxiety, depression, cravings and addictions, low self-esteem, lack of self-confidence, and all those other things that keep you from being your happiest self.
Here are six powerful ways exercise makes you happy while improving your cognitive and mental health and fitness.
Exercise Increases the Brain Chemicals of Happiness
Brain cells communicate with each other via chemical messengers called neurotransmitters.
There are over 100 known neurotransmitters that regulate mood, energy, libido, cravings, addictions, and sleep. (3)
The major “feel good” brain chemicals — serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, and endorphins — are essential for maintaining a positive mood.
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Serotonin deficiency and, to a lesser degree, dopamine deficiency are widely believed to be the main causes of depression.
Exercise increases serotonin levels and normalizes dopamine levels so they don’t get too low or too high. (6)
But you don’t have to run for hours to experience the benefits of endorphins.
According to the National Academy of Sports Medicine, 30 minutes of biking, hiking, cycling, weightlifting, and even doing chores around the house will increase endorphins. (9)
How Physical Exercise Builds Brain Fitness
Exercise Helps Your Brain Grow New Brain Cells
Just as exercise builds a healthier heart and stronger muscles, it also builds a bigger and brighter brain.
Exercise turns on the gene that sends a signal to create more brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF).
BDNF is a protein that keeps existing brain cells healthy and stimulates new brain cell formation. (13)
Dr. John Ratey is an Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain.
He has spent a better part of his career studying the effects of exercise on the brain.
He says, “A lot of things contribute to us feeling better when we exercise. Endorphins are one of them, but so are norepinephrine, serotonin, dopamine, and brain-derived neurotrophic factor.” (14)
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Amazingly, when researchers sprinkled BDNF onto neurons in the lab, they spontaneously sprouted new branches.
This led Ratey to compare BDNF to “Miracle-Gro for the brain.”
He says that BDNF keeps brain cells young and perky to prevent cognitive decline.
Maintaining higher BDNF levels is thought to help prevent depression, dementia, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s disease since they are all linked to a low BDNF level. (16)
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Exercise Increases Your Resilience to Stress
There is no doubt that being stressed out is a drain on happiness.
But research shows that exercise reorganizes the brain, making it more resilient to stress. (17)
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Stress halts the production of the important neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine, GABA, and BDNF.
Exercise keeps you from dwelling on negative thoughts by altering blood flow to those areas in the brain that trigger unwanted, stressful thoughts. (25)
One fascinating research finding is that exercise reduces stress and anxiety even if you are forced to exercise and don’t really want to do it! (26)
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Exercise Helps You Sleep
It’s hard to be happy when lack of sleep leaves you feeling grumpy, impatient, lethargic, and foggy-headed.
Gretchen Rubin, author of the international bestseller The Happiness Project, is frequently asked how to be happier.
She writes on her blog that she always tells her readers, “The first thing to do is to make sure you’re getting plenty of sleep and some exercise.” (27)
This is not a surprising answer when you realize how important sleep is for your brain.
Getting physical exercise can have a profound effect your on how well you sleep.
The National Sleep Foundation reports that getting 150 minutes of exercise a week improves sleep quality by 65%. (32)
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Exercise Treats Depression Better Than Antidepressants
If you are among the millions currently taking a prescription antidepressant, this information is for you.
Duke University did a study comparing the effects on depression of exercise versus the popular SSRI antidepressant Zoloft. (33)
One group took Zoloft, a second group exercised 30 minutes four times a week, and a third group did both.
After 16 weeks, all three groups had substantial, nearly equal improvements in their depression.
Six months later, only 62% of the drug-only group and 69% percent of the drug-and-exercise group had stayed depression-free, while an impressive 92% of those in the exercise-only group had no relapse. (34)
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Dr. John Ratey says in his TEDx Talk that exercising is like taking “a little bit of Ritalin and a little bit of Prozac” to focus your mind and relieve depression.
He’s found that when normally happy people who exercise are forced to stop, they become depressed and unable to pay attention or make plans.
He believes exercise treats depression by making the brain more neuroplastic, engaging its memory, motivation, and attention systems to regulate the emotions.
Exercise Makes You Feel Good About Yourself
When you look good, feel healthy, and perform your best, it’s bound to make you feel happier.
And exercise does all of this and more!
Exercise improves self-control to overcome bad habits.
A review of 24 studies found that exercise provides an immediate boost to self-control. (40)
Executive functions encompass a wide range of mental abilities including processing speed, accuracy, working memory, and the ability to switch tasks efficiently, ignore distractions, and make plans.
This in turn will help you make better decisions in all areas of your life.
It can help you live longer and put more life into those years. (50)
You can multiply the benefits of exercise by taking it outdoors.
Compared with exercise done indoors, outdoor activities increase vitality, enthusiasm, pleasure, and self-esteem while lowering tension, depression, and fatigue. (51)
If you dread exercise, take heart — it’s better than you think.
When asked to predict how much they will enjoy their workout, most people find that they like actually exercising more than they expected. (52)
How Exercise Makes You Happy: The Bottom Line
Physical exercise is a key to happiness.
It enhances mental functions, promotes neurotransmitter balance, and protects your brain from the effects of aging.
No matter where you currently fall on the happiness scale, if you aren’t exercising regularly, you almost certainly aren’t as happy as you could be.
Even a moderate amount of exercise can have profoundly positive effects on mood and cognitive function.