Science of happiness

Anna Jastrzembska explores the euphoria induced by exercise

16th November 2015

Every day when I drag myself home from uni, people jog by. My feelings for them range from being impressed to envy and hatred. Because there is no denying that exercise makes you happy. Yes, it all depends on your temperament, and yes, our brains work in different ways. Therefore, what might provoke a rush of endorphins for one person might not do much for another. However, people in general seem to draw happiness from physical exercise.

The thing is that exercise doesn’t just make you happy for a short while like chocolate. No, exercise provides long-term positive effects, which paves the way for longer lasting happiness. Just like chocolate, exercise is addictive but you can’t really overdose on it (unless you are a professional athlete) and the more and more regularly exercise, the better the effect on your body.

People who describe themselves as happy are more resistant to diseases. According to research, happy people have even 50% more of antibodies. Now, that creates is an undeniable link between happiness and exercise. They both strengthen our immune systems, and more accurately, are associated with formation of new antibodies. The difference is that exercise can make your body produce up to 300% more antibodies, as well as T-cells (killer cells that destroy antigens).  And if you are healthy you are more likely to be happy. Additionally, regular exercise boosts your energy levels and having lots of energy is associated with happiness.

There is lots of psychology behind the happiness of exercise, too. This first important rule is to engage in exercises that meet your abilities - no need to bring yourself down because you pretended to be able to play rugby. Meeting your workout goals brings you a sense of accomplishment and seeing how your body becomes stronger makes you feel good and in control. Brains like routine, so regular workouts boost your spirit. It works also the other way round- getting out and about on a nice day for a jog or a bike also makes you feel better and helps to end the monotony of days spent in lecture theatres and computer clusters. Apart from that, exercise improves your self-confidence, slows down cognitive decline, gets you more creative, more productive, and more social.

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine has found out that exercise helps insomniacs sleep and, in a long run, lowers their anxiety. That is probably because exercise lowers levels of cortisol, a stress hormone.  Exercise has similar effects on your brain like antidepressants. It also helps create new brain cells in a part responsible for memory and learning.

Exercise releases endorphins and dopamine - two “happy hormones”. Have you heard of “runner’s high?” It’s a sensation created by endorphins, which reduce pain and produce euphoria. But not all kinds of exercise end in an endorphin high- it’s reserved for sprinting, heavy weights and other kinds of anaerobic exertion. (It’s when your body operates so hard that it lacks oxygen that your muscles and cells yearn.)

Now, I have good news for exercise haters. Meditation has been found to have similar effects - including the happiness part. That is probably because meditation and exercise have a lot in common, for example focus, tuning out of external stimuli and breath control. Also, unless you are aiming for a runner’s high, the spirit-boosting exercise only requires 30 minutes of moderate-intense physical activity, like a ast walk to town. And, by all means, combine exercise with chocolate.

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