This is a continuation of my blog “My Happiness Project”. I decided to focus the second blog in the series on exercise. This is not necessarily because I love exercise and am always looking for new converts, but rather because the more I study about exercise, the more I understand how broad its application to happiness can be. By becoming a regular exercise devotee, you not only gain the obvious benefits of improved strength, cardio vascular endurance and flexibility, but a plethora of boosts to your happiness level.
Before I tackle all the reasons exercise can make us happier, a little information on the science of chemicals in our brains needs to be undertaken. The following is a very simplified and brief explanation, so if you are interested in delving deeper, I suggest you do some research to find out more (or maybe I’ll go in depth in a future blog), but for those of you who aren’t questioners like me, here is the Cole’s notes version.
Neurotransmitters in our brains are: dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphins, and these chemicals help to keep us happy. There are certain things we can do to help release these chemicals in our body.
Dopamine is associated with setting and achieving goals. So set goals, work and achieve them and celebrate (preferably not with an addictive substance).
Serotonin is present when you feel significant or important. Reflecting back on past achievements (real or imagined, allows your brain to relive the experience.) Gratitude practices are helpful for this as they allow you to reflect on experiences or mental images of good things.
Oxytocin creates trust, intimacy and strengthens relationships. Give a hug (at least 8 per day is recommended), or give a gift to help release this hormone.
Endorphins are released with pain, stress and fear, (exercise is a form of stress) and are associated with “runners high”. They do require some intense exercise like heavy weight lifting or anaerobic training like sprinting. This doesn’t mean lifting like an Olympian or sprinting for hours, just more intense exercise that would cause you to breathe very heavily (so you couldn’t hold a conversation at the same time, or that you couldn’t sustain for very long—like lifting weights that would get your muscles to failure fairly quickly.) So obviously, this also takes into account your level of fitness, a very brisk walk may be intense for one person, while a 30 second all out sprint may be required for someone else.
So exercise because it……
Boosts energy. Even though it almost seems counter intuitive, exercise actually gives you more energy not less. One of the reasons it’s not recommended to exercise too close to bedtime.
Reduces stress. Exercise helps with decreased cortisol and adrenaline levels. A bit of these at appropriate times are good (these are tied to our fight or flight response), but when we have too much of them in our systems on an ongoing basis due to excessive stress, this impairs our health. Yoga, Tai Chi, walking, as well as more vigorous forms of exercise help to reduce stress.
Helps to reduce anxiety and depression. Studies have shown that people who suffer from anxiety and depression can achieve significant improvement with regular exercise. Thanks once again to those chemicals(neurotransmitters) being nudged into action.
Slows down cognitive decline and improves brain function. Exercise promotes the growth of new nerve cells and synapses through elevating levels of neurotrophins (a chemical that fosters the growth of new nerve endings).
Fosters better sleep. By helping your body to release more neurotransmitters, reducing stress and getting more activity these can all lead to better sleep.
Encourages more creativity. As cortisol is flushed out of your body and those endorphins are flooding in, not to mention the extra oxygen flowing through your blood, these are among the things that also help create a creative boost and improved mental energy.
Makes you more productive/more relaxed. Hey! How can exercise do both? Exercise helps boost our energy levels and our creativity, thus making us more productive. But, by helping to destress us, we are also more able to relax.
Helps with getting addictions under control and maintaining control. By relieving and reducing stress. By altering your brain chemistry (shout out to the endorphins once again, a natural high to give us pleasure). By improving your outlook (increased self –confidence and optimism…more exercise benefits). By concentrating on the physical performance, we can focus on our well-being and forget for a short time, everything else going on in our lives. This is a form of meditation, whereby focusing on the present, we achieve a meditative state and feel more rejuvenated and optimistic.
Now, let me say, these are not the only benefits to your health and ultimately happiness from exercise. There are others, but I have focused on what I would consider the major ones. The problem is getting someone from agreeing with the concept, to actually implementing it into their lives. This may stem from several reasons. If someone feels they are already “happy enough”, and are not particularly drawn to exercise, they may not feel any incentive or motivation to start on a consistent program. Another reason might be that while they may believe that generally the science is probably true about the health benefits, they themselves are very healthy and they don’t expect that to change. Others may have a genuine desire to exercise, but can’t seem to gather the momentum to actually start and/or maintain a program of regular exercise. If the reason for not making a change in lifestyle is the latter then I would recommend reading my blog on Habits.
As always, I encourage you to join the journey in becoming a stronger, happier and healthier YOU!