Exercise isn't just good for your body, it also helps the brain produce more dopamine. Here's how it affects your mental health.
You've probably heard of a "runner's high" -- the exercise-induced "endorphin rush" that leaves you feeling great after a workout. Surprisingly, endorphins only place a small part in that feeling, according to health psychologist Kelly McGonigal. There are several other ways exercise makes us happier -- including by lowering stress levels, reducing feelings of loneliness and isolation, and helping people relieve anxiety and depression.
Keep reading to find out more about the science and psychology behind why exercise makes you happier and why you may want to make more time for it in your own life.
"Movement itself primes you to connect with others. That's just the brain chemistry of it. When you get your heart rate up, when you use your body, when you engage your muscles, it changes your brain chemistry in a way that makes it easier to connect with others and bond, trust other people. It enhances social pleasures like a high five, laughing or a hug," McGonigal said.
Follow a few fitness trainers or fitness influencer accounts on social media, and you'll see them use words like "fit fam," "fit family" or the hashtag #fitfam. The term usually refers to a group of people you workout with regularly, that you also consider a friend or like family because you've bonded over your love of the same workout. McGonigal says this is due in a large part to what happens in your brain when you exercise with others.
"Whoever you move with, whether it's a walking group or maybe a group class, because of the way exercise alters our brain chemistry and outlook, you start to feel a true sense of connection with the people that you're moving with. It's why people will talk about people who they work out with as their 'fitness fam.'" Because it really does give us a sense of belonging, it helps build relationships that can be true friendships and sources of support. And I've seen that happen in my own classes," says McGonigal, who also teaches group exercise classes.
Having a "fitness fam" can mean more than just having a group of people you can depend on to work out with you. When you connect with people that have shared values (like valuing your health and wellness) and interests (for whatever type of workout you do), there's automatically a better chance that your relationship will be even stronger since you share these things. And experts agree, having strong relationships and connections in life is one of the most important factors in overall happiness.
You've probably heard that exercise increases endorphins, but it also increases many more brain chemicals that make you feel happy. "When you exercise, it increases endorphins, dopamine, adrenaline and endocannabinoid -- these are all brain chemicals associated with feeling happy, feeling confident, feeling capable, feeling less anxiety and stress and even less physical pain," McGonigal says.
Exercise is also shown to help some people with depression, which experts say could be to due an increase in nerve cell growth in the brain that happens when you exercise.
Another chemical that is shown to help relieve stress and boost happiness is myokine, which your body creates when your muscles contract.
"These myokines begin to change the function and structure of your brain in ways that make you more resilient to stress and can help people recover from depression and even anxiety disorders," McGonigal said.
When it comes to feeling happier and empowered in life, having confidence is key.
According to McGonigal, exercise helps boost your confidence because when you workout, you're doing something challenging along with other people (ideally) which gives you a sense of shared accomplishment and teamwork.
"When you move with other people it creates a strong sense of 'bigger than self' possibility that makes people feel more optimistic and empowered," McGonigal said. "And it allows people to feel more empowered about facing the challenges in their own lives. And that's an interesting side benefit of moving with other people, because there's an embodied sense of 'we're in this together' that translates into self-confidence and the ability to take on challenges in your life."
If you're like the countless others who have heard about the benefits of meditation, but can't seem to find the time, good news. You may not actually have to meditate to get some of the benefits. In McGonigal's research, she found that exercising outdoors can have a similar effect on the brain and mood as meditation.
"Exercising outdoors has an immediate effect on mood that is extremely powerful for depression and anxiety. Because it induces a state in your brain that is very similar to meditation, the state of open awareness," McGonigal said.
"For people whose minds are not their best friends and deal with rumination and worrying, something as simple as going for a walk or bike ride outdoors can have an immediate profound effect that can help give tremendous relief because it invites the mind to shift spontaneously without any effort into this meditative like state," McGonigal said.