|We all know exercise makes your body healthier and helps you live longer. A growing body of research shows exercise is also linked to a wide range of mood-based and social benefits.
People who are physically active are happier and more satisfied with their lives. They have a stronger sense of purpose, feel more gratitude, are more connected to their communities, and are less likely to be lonely or anxious.
Why? A big part has to do with how being active affects the brain. Here are five surprising ways exercise is good for your mind.
The exercise “high” primes you to connect with others
While typically described as a runner’s high, an exercise-induced mood boost is not exclusive to running. Similar good feelings can be found in any sustained physical activity, such as yoga, swimming and dancing.
Scientists long speculated that endorphins are behind the high, but research shows the high is linked to another class of brain chemicals: endocannabinoids (the same chemicals mimicked by cannabis) — what neuroscientists describe as the “don’t worry, be happy” chemical. Endocannabinoids reduce anxiety and induce a state of contentment. These brain chemicals also increase dopamine in the brain’s reward system, which fuels feelings of optimism.
Exercise can make your brain more sensitive to joy
Exercise provides a low-dose jolt to the brain’s reward centers — the system that helps you anticipate pleasure, feel motivated and maintain hope. Over time, regular exercise remodels the reward system, leading to higher circulating levels of dopamine and more available dopamine receptors. In this way, exercise can both relieve depression and expand your capacity for joy.
Exercise makes you brave
Courage is another side effect of how physical activity changes the brain. Exercise increases connections among areas of the brain that calm anxiety. Regular physical activity can also modify the default state of the nervous system so that it becomes more balanced and less prone to fight, flight or fright.
Moving with others builds trust and belonging
Moving in the same way, and at the same time, as others triggers a release of endorphins. This is why dancers and rowers who move in sync show an increase in pain tolerance. But endorphins don’t just make us feel good; they help us bond, too. People who share an endorphin rush feel closer to one another afterward. It’s a powerful mechanism for forming friendships, even with people we don’t know.
Many aspects of a group exercise experience amplify the bonding effects of synchronized movement. For example, the more you get your heart rate up, the closer you feel to the people you move with. Adding music enhances the effect. Breathing in unison — as in a yoga or tai chi class — can also increase the feeling of collective joy. If you want to experience a state of belonging and self-transcendence, find a place where you can move, breathe and sweat with others.
This article was published in the Washington Post. Read full article here.