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Your Brain and Exercise

By Oliva Harlow

Experts say exercise can help with just about anything — from the obvious, fitness, to depression and memory loss. But what exactly does physical activity do to our brains during those mid-day gym sessions? Here, we dive into the science of exercise and explore its myriad benefits in detail.

Introducing “Runner’s High”

Many runners refer to a feeling called the “runner’s high” to describe a sense of euphoria rewarded by many miles. They may compare the experience to being on drugs, with their body feeling fluid and reality seeming otherworldly.

But, this stimulus isn’t just for runners. Many gym rats, yogis and soccer players experience this same blissful state when lifting weights, holding tree pose or kicking a ball down a field. Despite the pain and grit of exercise, there’s a side effect of pure joy that comes with it.

What’s Going On?

Most of us know that every time we exercise, we’re building muscle mass to increase stamina and strength. What remains more mysterious, however, is the behind-the-scenes impact it has on our brain.

When burning a sweat via high-intensity workouts, the brain recognizes exercise as stress. When heart pressure increases, the body assumes you’re in “fight or flight” — battling an enemy or attempting to flee from one. That’s your primal, caveman-era instincts kicking in. To alleviate your brain from stress, your body releases proteins that help protect and repair memory neurons. (Ever feel like you can think more clearly after exercise? That’s why.) Simultaneously, endorphins are released to minimize discomfort of exercise, blocking pain and boosting mood. (Feel happier and more energetic after a workout? That’s why.)

Is Exercise a Drug?

The scary part of exercise is that, similar to hard drugs, such as heroin, the brain can become addicted to its feel-good elements. The difference is, that in moderation, exercise is actually good for us. However, exercise addiction is possible, and some athletes can take it to extremes, entering severe states of depression without it.

Similar to drugs, over time, your body builds tolerance to the effects of exercise. For example, the proteins in your brain that enhance mood while participating in a sport eventually plateau, and you require more exercise to reach the same level of euphoria. For example, a marathoner who runs to achieve that “runner’s high” may reach a point when 26 miles doesn’t do the trick anymore. Eventually, they’ll try a 50-mile ultra, and once that’s the new norm, they’ll look for an even bigger challenge. At some point, there may not be a distance that offers that same type of euphoria they experienced when they first started running.

The good news is that in less-extreme examples you can push yourself to new limits, going from a 20-minute jog to a 30-minute interval run. Again, everything in moderation!

Make the Perks Last

Many times, after exercise, you might feel ‘lighter,’ happier and more level-headed — ready to face anything that might come your way. Unfortunately, it seems these benefits don’t last long — a couple hours after, you may find yourself suffering a stress-related migraine at work or worrying over a text message your BFF sent.

Interestingly, studies show that the greatest way to obtain long-term health and happiness through exercise is to take it easy. Rather than trying to become a professional rock climber or 100-mile ultrarunner, scientists say brief, 20-minute workouts have the greatest impact. The first 20 minutes of activity after being sedentary, they say, is the time period that helps prolong life, reduce risk of heart disease and boosts mood. Those who implement even a small amount of exercise into their daily lives are happier and healthier than those who do not; the absence of exercise altogether has countless negative impacts and health risks. Mentally, those who exercise at least 20 minutes daily have a calmer demeanor and a heightened memory. After that, there’s really not much of a difference.

(Keep in mind that the longer and more intense your exercise, the more susceptible you are to injury. And once you’ve grown accustomed to bigger workouts, time without them due to a stress fracture can be devastating!)

Get in the Habit


Starting up an exercise routine can be difficult if you’re not used to waking up at 6 a.m. for a sunrise run or forcing yourself to the tennis court after a long day of work. But, if you can force yourself into a routine for at least five consecutive days, the habit will become much easier over time. Those five days might be rough, but after that the lifestyle will come more naturally. The best part? If you can implement exercise into your lifestyle, it will also leak into other areas of your life. Your overall wellbeing will reach a new high, with higher contentment in work, relationships and self-esteem.

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