What Happens to Our Brains During Exercise (and Why it Makes Us Happier)

What Happens to Our Brains During Exercise (and Why it Makes Us Happier)Most of us are aware of what happens to the body when we exercise. We build more muscle or more stamina. We feel how daily activities like climbing stairs becomes easier if we exercise regularly. When it comes to our brain and mood though, the connection isn’t so clear. Leo Widrich, co-founder of social media sharing app Buffer, set out to uncover the connection between feeling happy and exercising regularly.
What triggers happiness in our brain when we exercise?

“Yes, yes, I know all about it, that’s the thing with the endorphins, that makes you feel good and why we should exercise and stuff, right?” is what I can hear myself say to someone bringing this up. I would pick up things here and there, yet really digging into the connection of exercise and how it effects us has never been something I’ve done. The line around our “endorphins are released” is more something I throw around to sound smart, without really knowing what it means.

Here is what actually happens:

If you start exercising, your brain recognizes this as a moment of stress. As your heart pressure increases, the brain thinks you are either fighting the enemy or fleeing from it. To protect yourself and your brain from stress, you release a protein called BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor). This BDNF has a protective and also reparative element to your memory neurons and acts as a reset switch. That’s why we often feel so at ease and like things are clear after exercising.

At the same time, endorphins, another chemical to fight stress, are released in your brain. Your endorphins main purpose are this, writes researcher MK McGovern:

“These endorphins tend to minimize the discomfort of exercise, block the feeling of pain, and are even associated with a feeling of euphoria.”

There is a lot going on inside our brain and it is oftentimes a lot more active than when we are just sitting down or actually concentrating mentally:


So, BDNF and endorphins are the reasons exercise makes us feel so good. The somewhat scary part is that they have a very similar and addictive behavior like morphine, heroin, or nicotine. The only difference? Well, it’s actually good for us.

Don’t do more, but focus on when

Now here is where it all gets interesting. We know the basic foundations of why exercising makes us happy and what happens inside our brain cells. The most important part to uncover now is, of how we can trigger this in an optimal and longer lasting way?

A recent study from Penn State shed some light on the matter and the results are more than surprising. They found that to be more productive and happier on a given work day, it doesn’t matter so much, if you work-out regularly, that you haven’t worked out on that particular day:

“Those who had exercised during the preceding month but not on the day of testing generally did better on the memory test than those who had been sedentary, but did not perform nearly as well as those who had worked out that morning.”

New York Times bestselling author Gretchen Reynolds wrote a whole book about the subject matter called The First 20 Minutes. 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 is 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 really, you can relax and don’t have to be on the lookout for the next killer work out. All you have to do is get a focused 20 minutes in to get the full happiness boost every day:

“On exercise days, people’s mood significantly improved after exercising. Mood stayed about the same on days they didn’t, with the exception of people’s sense of calm which deteriorated.”(University of Bristol)

Make it a habit

Starting to exercise regularly or even daily is still easier said than done. At end of the day, there is quite a lot of focus required to get into the habit of exercising daily. The most important part to note is that exercise is a keystone habit. This means that daily exercise can pave the way not only for happiness, but also growth in all other areas of your life.

In a recent post from my colleague Joel, he wrote about the power of daily exercise for his every day life. Coincidentally, he follows the above rules very accurately and exercises daily before doing anything else. He writes:

“By 9:30am, I’ve done an hour of coding on the most important task I have right now on Buffer, I’ve been to the gym and had a great session, and I’ve done 30 minutes of emails. It’s only 9:30am and I’ve already succeeded, and I feel fantastic.”

I’ve spoken lots to Joel about his habit of exercising and here are some of the most important things to do in order to set yourself up for success and make your daily exercise fun:

  • Put your gym clothes right over your alarm clock or phone when you go to bed: This technique sounds rather simple, but has been one of the most powerful ones. If you put everything the way you want it for the gym before you go to sleep and put your alarm under your gym clothes, you will have a much easier time to convince yourself to put your gym clothes on.
  • Track your exercises and log them at the same time after every exercise: When you try to exercise regularly, the key is to make it a habit. One way to achieve this is to create a so called “reward”, that will remind you of the good feelings you get from exercising. In our big list of top web apps, we have a full section on fitness apps that might be handy. Try out Fitocracy or RunKeeper to log your work outs. Try to have a very clear logging process in place. Log your work out just before you go into the shower or exactly when you walk out of the gym.
  • Think about starting small and then start even smaller: Here is a little secret. When I first started exercising, I did it with 5 minutes per day, 3 times a week. Can you imagine that? 5 minutes of timed exercise, 3 times a week? That’s nothing you might be thinking. And you are right, because the task is so easy and anyone can succeed with it, you can really start to make a habit out of it. Try no more than 5 or 10 minutes if you are getting started.

The highest level of happiness happens at the beginning

As a quick last fact, exercise, the increase of the BDNF proteins in your brain acts as a mood enhancer. The effects are similar to drug addiction one study found. So when you start exercising, the feeling of euphoria is the highest:

“The release of endorphins has an addictive effect, and more exercise is needed to achieve the same level of euphoria over time.” (McGovern)

So, if you have never exercised before (or not for a long time), your happiness gains will be the highest if you start now.

7 Common Factors of Successful Weight Management

Weight Management
These days, the topic of what’s in food is probably less important than what youYou’re working hard to lose the weight and get in shape. You bought a Beachbody® workout program. For some people, the results they’ve worked so hard for slowly disappear as bad habits return. Some wonder how “those thin people” can stay that way all the time.

In 1993, the National Weight Control Registry (NWCR) was founded to study the behaviors of “successful losers.” Those studied lost an average of 72 pounds, with a minimum weight loss of 30 pounds, and were able to keep the weight off for at least 5 years. Looking at various studies on obesity, the researchers found 7 common factors among those who were successful in maintaining their weight loss.

1. Eating a low-calorie, low-fat diet
Those studied ate an average of 1,385 calories per day (plus or minus 557), with an average of 26.6 percent coming from fat. Although 26.6 percent from fat may seem high to you, it is lower than the typical American’s diet, which consists of simple carbs and ready-to-eat, low-cost processed food. Also, the researchers found that fast food visits were limited to less than ONE per month (step away from the fries!).

2. Participating in a high level of physical activity
Those studied burned an average of over 2,600 calories per day. This calorie burn came from doing normal, everyday physical activity, including a lot of walking. In fact, over 75 percent of the participants included walking as a form of exercise, with 48 percent of the total participants adding walking to other forms of exercise. Think it can’t be done? The next time you go somewhere, try parking a little farther away and walking, take the stairs instead of the elevator, get off the bus or subway one stop sooner, or walk the dog around the block the next time you want to reach for a snack. It’s a great way to get in a little more exercise time.

3. Limiting TV viewing
I heard something great the other day. Someone said that they had always made excuses about not having enough time to exercise. Yet, they always fit in 3 hours of TV viewing every night. Instead of plopping down in front of the TV at night, try to find other things to do. Why not take this time to pop in your favorite exercise DVD? Take a walk with your kids, read a book, or take a class. Not only will it get you moving, it also stimulates your brain in a way that TV viewing can’t. It can also kill that urge for mindless snacking while watching TV.

4. Eating breakfast
Those studied rarely skipped breakfast. After “fasting” all night, your body actually needs the energy that a healthy breakfast can provide. Eating breakfast makes you less likely to grab that pastry in the kitchen at work or run out for fast food at lunchtime. It also keeps your metabolism going, so that your body doesn’t shift into the “protect and conserve all fat” mode.

5. Maintaining dietary consistency
To the successful weight losers (or winners!), “diet” is not a bad word. They are always consistent with how many calories they are eating. There is no “cheat” day or falling off of the wagon during holidays or vacations.

6. Maintaining a high level of dietary restraint
This goes along with factor #5. Those who are successful at weight loss are always conscious about the types of foods that go in their mouths. When you are trying to maintain your hard-deserved weight loss, be conscious of the types of foods you are eating. One hundred calories of your favorite candy treat are not the same as 100 calories of a protein shake. But, if you “mess up,” don’t beat yourself up. Those who are successful at keeping the weight off jump right back in where they left off, which leads us to the last common factor . . .

7. Frequent self-weighing
Seventy-five percent of those looked at by the NWCR weighed themselves at least once a week, with almost half (44 percent) weighing in every day. This allowed them to keep track of any weight gain (or loss) and to address it before it became a “big” problem. Also included in this self-monitoring behavior was the continued counting of calories and fat grams. This continued “reinforcement” goes a long way toward keeping you on track for a slimmer today and healthier tomorrow.