The brain is a fascinating organ. It's not just the command center for all of our thoughts, memories, and actions; it also affects how we feel physically in response to everything from exercise to even our relationships!
Now that said...
Show of hands – who has watched the movie “Legally Blonde?”
There’s a great scene where Reese Witherspoon’s character, Elle, is asked why their client couldn’t possibly have been responsible for a crime.
Elle’s response is one of the most quotable lines of the movie:
“Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy. Happy people just don’t shoot their husbands; they just don’t.”
Such a terrific line…and totally true.
It’s sort of simplistic, but important. Of course, a lot of other things happen when you work out, but let’s take a look at three things that happen specifically to your brain, starting with the above theory.
Don’t Worry, Be Happy!
When you work out, your brain is activated in several ways. One of them is the increase in neurotransmitters. These are the chemical messengers that work together to tell the brain how it should respond to outside stimuli.
There are several different neurotransmitters. They each have a specific job to do, but they also work together to regulate your mood. Think of it as a DOSE of goodness.
If you are feeling rewarded or have pleasure in something, you are probably experiencing large amounts of this chemical messenger. It also helps keep motivation and attention at proper levels. The more you exercise, the more dopamine is released. The more that is released, the more you feel rewarded, which makes you more likely to repeat the behavior.
Because it works off of increased levels of itself, it is sort of a self-fulfilling messenger.
Nicknamed the “love hormone,” oxytocin is a key chemical in the bonding process. For that reason, it is often credited with helping fulfill the bonding process of a mother and child. But it also is thought to control some aspects of social behavior and can affect your attitude.
More oxytocin equals a better attitude and more positive interactions with other people.
Sorry, Elle, you’re only partly right about endorphins (more on them in a minute). Serotonin is actually the real chemical responsible for happiness and wellbeing. It is also a vital mood balancer. People diagnosed with depression are often found to have low levels of serotonin. It also works in tandem with melatonin to regulate your internal clock and balance sleep patterns.
This chemical has a lot of responsibility!
These peptides help the body cope with pain and stress by binding to the others. In this way, they take the benefits of the other three to create the overall more positive feeling your brain experiences with exercise.
For those of you who are interested in word origins, “endorphin” comes from the words endogenous(inside the body) and morphine (medication that relieves pain). Obvious, then, to see why they are known as “natural painkillers.”
When you produce a bigger DOSE of these neurotransmitters by working out, your brain does become happier overall.
I Want to See You Be Brave
These neurotransmitters do a lot more than what I mentioned above. For example, oxytocin is also thought to regulate anxiety. When we look carefully at this, it shows us a surprising benefit of working out.
Did you ever think that working out could make you braver? Well, it does.
I mentioned that oxytocin is pivotal in the bonding process between mother and child. Now, follow this thought process: bonding leads to more personal interactions, which can lead to a better feeling of self-worth, which can lower anxiety levels.
Makes sense, right? But what comes next?
When you have less anxiety, you feel like you have more confidence. That might lead you to try things that you wouldn’t otherwise consider. This all boils down to an increase in bravery.
Well, nothing is forever. But a study conducted by NIH found that “aerobic exercise may reduce both the brain atrophy and the decline in fractional anisotropy observed with advancing age.” In plain English, this means that exercise has been shown to reduce or otherwise slow the effects of aging on the brain. Again, it’s pretty logical.
Let’s take a car, for example. If you take care of it, make sure the tires are rotated, change the oil regularly, and drive it correctly, it can last a long time. To look at it another way, if you park your car and don’t drive it that often, the tires may go flat, the gas may become watered down, and the internal parts may rust and not work properly. The same goes for your brain.
The more those neurotransmitters are activated and firing, the more they’re being used and the healthier they remain. If you don’t workout, those chemicals don’t have as much to do because their levels are lower, and the vessels that facilitate those transmitters start to deteriorate.
Wrap it Up.
Now, I’m not saying that all of these are hard and fast for every single person or that you’re going to see immediate changes if you start a new exercise program. But why not believe in Elle and make yourself a happy person?
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