Why Does Exercise Make Us Feel Good?


Studies repeatedly show that exercising is not only good for our physical health, but also for our mental health. Why is that?

When we start to exercise, our heart starts to beat faster. Our brain interprets the increased heart rate as part of a “flight-or-fight” response to an impending danger. To protect itself, and the rest of your body in preparation of the upcoming danger, it releases a protein called BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor) along with endorphins.

The BDNF acts as a protectant and repair element to the neurons in your brain, and as a reset switch. The endorphins work to minimize the discomfort and block the feeling of pain that is associated with the impending “danger”.

Together they give us a feeling of euphoria often called “a runner’s high” although any form of exercise can create that feeling of happiness. But the “high” is not the only mental health benefit derived from exercising. Anxiety disorders and depression rates dropped dramatically in participants of an exercise study.

They physical benefits derived from exercising can also help with your own mental health. As you become more fit, self-confidence and self-esteem start to rise, making you feel better about yourself. An increase in fitness also tends to improve one’s health, which in turn increases our sense of wellbeing, thus making us even happier now that our physical health is on the right track.

So how much exercising does it take to reap the benefits of a runner’s high? According to several experts, it happens within the first 20 minutes of working out. The rest of the workout is for burning calories in the case of cardio, or building and toning muscles if doing strength training.

The other interesting part is the feeling is addictive – much the same as with morphine, heroine or nicotine – but only in a good way. In other words, the more you experience the high, the more you want to experience it again by exercising.

And like with other addictions, after a while you will need to do more to get the same euphoric feeling; if exercising just 20 minutes, you will have to bump it up to 25 or 30. In many cases you will be doing more than 20 in the first place, so you’ll get the benefit anyway.

So when a non-exerciser tells you that feeling good after exercising is all in your head, they are right – it is! And now you can explain why.

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