We all know that exercise is an excellent way to improve your mind and body. Exercise is the key component to maintaining a healthy body, improving lean muscle mass and decreasing fat mass. Exercise has also been known to be a cure for just about anything from depression, to memory loss, to Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s and more. But what else does exercise really do for our minds and why should she we keep pounding the pavement?

When we exercise we build more muscle or more stamina. We feel how daily activities like walking up stairs become easier if we exercise regularly. When it comes to our brain and mood though, the connection isn’t so clear.

Endorphins in Action: Exercise and mood

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However, what is well known is that when we exercise our body releases the “feel good hormones” or better knowns as endorphins. Here’s what actually happens when your body releases endorphins.  When you start exercising, your brain recognizes this activity as a moment of stress. Subsequently, as your heart pressure increases your brain reacts with the fight or flight response. A protective protein is then released to protect yourself and your brain from stress.

The protein is known as BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor). This BDNF protein helps to protect and repair memory neurons and acts as a reset switch. This is why we feel so at ease and we have a clear mind after exercising and eventually we feel happy.

All at the same time, endorphins, another stress fighting chemical, is released in your brain. Your endorphins main purpose: to minimize the discomfort of exercise, block the feeling of pain and are even associated with a feeling of euphoria.

We certainly have a lot going on inside our brain while we exercise and it is in fact oftentimes a lot more active than when we are just sitting down or actually concentrating mentally. Here is a curious fact: BDNF and endorphins are the reasons exercise makes us feel so good, however; the somewhat scary part is that they have a very similar and addictive behavior like morphine, heroine or nicotine. What’s the big difference? Well, it is actually good for us!

There are other curious reasons that exercise enhances our mood. Read along and find out what makes exercise and a good mood go hand-in-hand.

Exercise and mood

1.) The key to maximize happiness through exercise: don’t do more, but focus on when

New York Times best-selling author Gretchen Reynolds has written a whole book about the subject matter titled “The first 20 minutes”. In order 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 of exercise 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, no need to go hard or go home. You can relax and don’t have to master the next killer work-out. Your main goal is get a focused 20 minutes in to get the full happiness boost every day.

2.) Reduce stress

Rough day? Take a walk or head to the gym for a quick workout and pick-me-up. One of the most common mental benefits of exercise is stress relief. Working out can help manage physical and mental stress.

Exercise also increases concentrations of norepinephrine, a chemical that can moderate the brain’s response to stress. So go ahead and work up a sweat — working out can reduce stress and boost the body’s ability to deal with existing mental tension. Win-win!

3.) Prevent cognitive decline

It’s unpleasant, but it’s true — as we get older, our brains get a little… hazy. As aging and degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s kill off brain cells, your brain actually shrinks, losing many important brain functions in the process.

While exercise and a healthy diet can’t “cure” Alzheimer’s, they can help shore up the brain against cognitive decline that begins after age 45. Exercising especially between age 25 and 45, boosts the chemicals in the brain that support and prevent degeneration of the hippocampus, an important part of the brain for memory and learning.

4.) Feeling anxious?

Which is better at relieving anxiety — a warm bubble bath or a 20-minute jog? You might be surprised at the answer. The warm and fuzzy chemicals that are released during and after exercise can help people with anxiety disorders calm down. Getting in some moderate-to-high intensity aerobic exercise can reduce anxiety sensitivity.

5.) Boost brainpower

Those buff lab rats might be smarter than we think. Various studies on mice and men have shown that cardiovascular exercise can create new brain cells (aka neurogenesis) and improve overall brain performance.

Studies suggest that a tough workout increases levels of a brain-derived protein (known as BDNF) in the body, believed to help with decision making, higher thinking, and learning.

6.) Sharpen memory

Get ready to win big at the memory game. Regular physical activity boosts memory and ability to learn new things. Getting sweaty increases production of cells in hippocampus responsible for memory and learning. Research has linked the development of children’s with level of physical fitness.

But exercise-based brainpower isn’t just for kids. Even if it’s not as fun as a game of Tag, working out can boost memory among grown-ups, too. A study showed that running sprints improved vocabulary retention among healthy adults.

7.) Increase relaxation

Ever go to bed after a long run or weight session at the gym? For some, a moderate workout can be the equivalent of a sleeping pill, even for people with insomnia.

Moving around five to six hours before bedtime raises the body’s core temperature. When the body temp drops back to normal a few hours later, it signals the body that it’s time to sleep.

8.) How’s your creative side?

Most people end a tough workout with a hot shower, but maybe we should be bringing out the pen and paper. A heart-pumping gym session can boost creativity for up to two hours afterwards.

Supercharge post-workout inspiration by exercising outdoors and interacting with nature. Next time you need a burst of creative thinking, hit the trails for a long walk or go for a run to refresh the body and the brain at the same time.

9.) Self-confidence increases

Go for a jog to look (and more importantly, feel) like a million bucks. On a very basic level, physical fitness can boost self-esteem and improve positive self-image. Regardless of weight, size, gender, or age, exercise can quickly elevate a person’s perception of his or her attractiveness, that is, self-worth. Are you feeling the (self) love?

Working out can have many positive effects on our mind and body. Gaining self-confidence, getting out of a funk, and even thinking smarter are some of the motivations to take time for exercise on a regular basis. Isn’t it curious that just by moving more, we feel happier more? So get out there, move and groove to a better mood!

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