Does exercise really make us feel good?

The simple answer: YES!

Most people can remember feeling a sense of euphoria after a workout and that post-workout mood boost isn’t just anecdotal. Over the years, scientists have found that as well as the physical health benefits of exercise that we all know, exercise can do wonders to help boost our emotions too.

Researchers have been exploring the link between exercise and cognition for some time and have repeatedly found that exercise boosts your mood because it fundamentally changes your brain.

When you exercise, your heart rate increases, and your body pumps more oxygen to your brain. This can affect your overall positivity, and help to manage anxiety and depression.

Have you ever felt agitated, jittery or anxious before a big meeting or an interview? Like you have too much energy and can’t sit still? Try increasing your heart rate in some way. This might help to increase the blood flow to your brain, and reduce your anxious feelings.

Sometimes, the last thing you want to do is start a workout, and the first few minutes can feel really tough. However, research shows that after 20-30 minutes of exercise (the kind that gets your heart beating faster) your body releases endorphins that reduce your perception of pain, meaning that after those magic 23-30 minutes, you are more likely to feel positive and upbeat for the rest of the workout. Serotonin and dopamine, two more mood-enhancing chemicals are also released during exercise, and these can stick around in your brain for up to a few hours after exercise – bonus!

“While exercise does have short-lived mental health benefits, it also changes the structure and function of your brain over time”, explains Dr Art Kramer, professor of psychology and director of the Centre for Cognitive and Brain Health at Northeastern University. “The general consensus is that a multitude of beneficial and chronic changes for a heathier brain and mind can happen if you exercise for an hour a day, three days a week.” These changes can include improvements in memory, learning, concentration, focus and emotional stability. “There are hundreds of papers on this topic that date back decades and decades, so it’s difficult to sum up all of the nitty-gritty details-but the point is that exercise impacts your brain both in the moment and structurally over time.”

Which exercise will make me feel the best?

Whilst studies seem to suggest that aerobic activity (such as running, biking and swimming) seem to be the best for your brain, it is important to acknowledge that this may simply be because there are more studies done on aerobic activity than any other.

Dr Kramer’s advice: do what is right for you! The exercise that you enjoy the most, that brings you the most joy and that you actually want to do is the right activity for you. Remember, doing something, whatever it is, is better than doing nothing!

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