Why does exercise make us feel so good?

This is your brain on the couch

brain_sitting


This is your brain on exercise

brain_walking

ANY QUESTIONS?


Depending on your age,  you may or may not be familiar with the above reference. Throughout the 90’s there was a popular public service spot that showed a person holding up an egg and saying, “this is your brain.” They would then crack the egg into a hot frying pan and say, “this is your brain on drugs. Any questions?” It was a simple but powerful spot that effectively demonstrated that doing drugs causes harm to the brain. Since that time technology has advanced to a point where functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has allowed us to capture actual images of how the brain responds to various activities. Using this technology scientists have been able to generate pictures like those above and  uncover the science behind something that we already know; exercise is not only good for us… it makes us feel good too. But why?

Increased Endorphin Levels:

Endorphins are chemicals that our bodies produce in response to various stimuli such as: pain, excitement, love, sex, and (you guessed it) EXERCISE. Endorphins act as neurotransmitters connecting pathways within the brain, blocking pain receptors and creating an overall sense of well-being or happiness.  The term endorphin is actually derived from the words endogenous (created internally) and morphine (an opium-based narcotic typically used for pain relief) which provides further insight into the effects that endorphins have on the brain.

A number of studies have been done that link exercise to increased endorphin levels. One such study was performed by the Department of Health and Sport Science at the University of Richmond, VA. The study found that the endorphin levels in a test group were nearly 39% higher after exercising for 45 minutes. The invorgation and positive sensations created by these high endorphin levels is often referred to as a “runner’s high” and can last for a couple of hours after completion of the exercise.

exercise bike

Increased  Dopamine Levels:

Also contributing to this extended “high” is dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter (chemical substances that transfer signals to neurons) that is at the heart of our brain’s reward center. When our body experiences a reward (something  it perceives as good) the neurons release dopamine which then binds with the dopamine receptors on neighboring neurons; quickly spreading the message that whatever we are doing right now is good and we should keep doing it. Typically once the message has been passed, the dopamine is reabsorbed and recycled for future use. Many addictive drugs like cocaine, heroine, and caffeine effect dopamine levels by blocking the removal of dopamine from the communication process. This leaves the neurons overloaded with dopamine and the users feeling a heightened state of pleasure long after the activity is completed and craving more when the dopamine is finally removed.

Dopamine Pathways. In the brain, dopamine play...

Dopamine Pathways. In the brain, dopamine plays an important role in the regulation of reward and movement. As part of the reward pathway, dopamine is manufactured in nerve cell bodies located within the ventral tegmental area (VTA) and is released in the nucleus accumbens and the prefrontal cortex. Its motor functions are linked to a separate pathway, with cell bodies in the substantia nigra that manufacture and release dopamine into the striatum. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A number of studies have shown a positive correlation between exercise and dopamine production. When we exercise the rewards center of our brain is activated and our neurons release a large amount of dopamine. These high levels of dopamine take longer to reabsorb and remain in the synapses longer. This creates a natural effect that is similar to the one created by drugs, where the individual experiences pleasure for an extended period after the activity has been completed.

There are a number of other factors that contribute to our overall  sense of feeling good after exercise, but endorphins and dopamine are two of the primary contributors. Exercising daily ensures that we are at our best: physically, mentally, and emotionally.

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