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.

Cardio: Do It for Your Joints

Knee Joint
You do it to burn calories, build your stamina, and keep your heart young. But it turns out that cardio is a knee pleaser, too.

Vigorous, maintained workouts that keep your heart rate elevated could increase the amount of bone-cushioning cartilage you have in your knees. There’s just one little caveat:

  • Vigorous exercise = good for the knees
  • Vigorous exercise that causes a joint injury = really, really BAD for your knees

So, while the cardio parts of your P90X® workout may help build joint cartilage, play it safe. Don’t overdo it and risk joint injury. That will only set your knee health back. Waaaaay back. Knee injuries can more than double your risk of arthritis down the road.

Here are a few more ways to keep your knees in great shape:

  1. Maintain a healthy weight.
  2. Strengthen the muscles that support your joints.
  3. Stretch.

Lucky for you, all these bonuses are built right into your P90X® workout. So stay committed to your exercise routine and keep on Bringing It!

April 2012 Beachbody Challenge Winner, Barry

Barry won a cool $1,000 for his Power90, P90X Transformation Story
Barry Crawford, Before and After
Tell us about your life before you started the program. How did you feel about yourself and your body?
It’s embarrassing really,…I can blame my weight on my back/neck injury ? Which limited me and thus I ballooned in weight ? Yeah an excuse, I liked to eat, and I liked to sit around and not do much prior to starting the program. let’s be honest with each other the weight I carried wasn’t gained in a year or two,.. I was always “a little over weight”. it isn’t a good feeling when someone walks up to you and rubs your belly and you ask what they were doing, they joke “Rubbing the Buddha belly buddy, your fat !” The constant jokes about weight,..they can hurt,people think they are funny,some think they are encouraging you to lose weight,..no it hurts ! I felt like an embarrassment to myself and my family,..not a good feeling being called the “fat one” in the family.

What inspired you to change your life and begin your transformation journey?
The desire to play with my granddaughter , who loves to run, jump and play. She inspired me to say I can do this ! I was a walking heart attack, I want to live to see her graduate from high school, maybe even get married.My tai chi coach taught me about healthy food choices,told me I should do a basic dumbbell exercise program every night prior to being able to eat dinner. I went from 224 to 210, I said wo what results could I see if i had a regular routine/program..ENTER the Power 90 and a transformational life style.

What is the greatest challenge you faced before beginning the program? How did the program and Beachbody® help you overcome that challenge?
The greatest challenge I faced was my spine ! I had been injured in an accident, and my neck and back were in constant pain and agony ! I would sleep maybe a max of 2 hours a night due to pain ! Eventually I was able to get more sleep here and there, but the pain was constant.Part of the cause tho was the large amount of weight that I was carrying on my person.I had a choice to make to be a victim or a victor,..I choose to be a victor ! The program reduced the weight, which has reduced the pain ! The program strengthened my core even doing more reduction in pain !The program was literally a life saver ! Through modifications I strengthened my core so much ..back pain ? Ha ! the pain is virtually eliminated ! i didn’t need to modify by the end of the challenge,I’m actually LIVING again !

Why did you choose this particular program?
While doing research on the P90X, so many regretted not starting with the Power 90,the P90X would have been too extreme for me at that point in time. All the reviews for Power 90 were positive for those that worked the program.clearly it worked for them,it could/did work for me too ! The thought and research that Team Beach Body placed into this program is AMAZING ! How it builds you right up to the P90X and beyond if you chose to go that route. I have had friends and family start the program now seeing the results I had,I’d suggest this as a way to start a new life style anyday of the week and twice on Sundays !

What in particular did you like about the program you chose?
The progressive way that Tony builds you up in the Power 90. First he increases your self confidence. Once that is built up and you say wow I can do this ! You start to realize he is also building up your physical capabilities to achieve even more ! And before the program ends where I would have never considered myself capable of doing P90X, I cant wait to start it now ! The Power 90 program has my self confidence up, and my physical ability to do the program is there now. It challenges you in such a progressive nature that is achievable, but yet a challenge. And once achieved, it feels so good to say ‘I decided, I committed and I succeed!”

Describe the results you achieved with your Beachbody program. Which achievements are you proud of?
My body weight DROPPED !, i feel 120% better ! I feel comfortable in my own skin ! I feel healthy ! I look healthy ! I’m so much stronger then before. My cardio stamina is baffling to me ! THANK YOU Tony H ! WoW I never ever thought I would have cardio stamina ! I think that the cardio stamina that I had (nothing) and what i have now wasn’t even a thought, wasn’t a consideration at all. I thought i’d get toned, lose weight,..but the cardio never dreamt I ‘d consider going running in this lifetime EVER ! And now i have this new found cardio stamina, I’m actually going shopping for running shoes. SAY WHAT !? Yes from being lazy sitting on the couch making excuses to going for a jog…… WoW ! That impresses me the most !

How has your life changed since completing your Beachbody program?
I find that my lifestyle changed by now actually living life ! Getting up from the sofa and doing things you see people do on TV. Guess what there is a huge world out there ready to be explored ! If you get up and go for a walk, WoW , go to the park, walk by a stream,..stroll alongside a lake,..now that’s relaxing, not sitting on the sofa. I have energy to do so much more now. I’m not making excuses to go sit down, I like doing things now and look for activities to do. Ok here’s one for ya, I’m looking forward to going by the river this summer to work on my yoga, last year I’d be looking to find a way to nap.

Coach Prize!April 2012 Beachbody Challenge Winner