Exploring the effect of exercise on mood

It’s well known that exercise is beneficial for the body, but things aren't so clear cut when it comes to its effect on mood. We explored the effect of exercise on endorphin production, serotonin production, and sleep to find out how regular workouts can change the way you feel.

Endorphins

The phrase ‘endorphin rush’ is often used when describing that post-workout boost you get after following up a stressful day at work with a session on the treadmill - but things aren't as straightforward as the phrase implies. We looked more closely.

Endorphins are a group of hormones released within the brain and nervous system which block the transmission of pain signals and activate the body’s opiate receptors producing a euphoric feeling.

So you work out and then you feel great - simple right? Well, not exactly.

Endorphins are involved in natural reward circuits related to activities such as eating, drinking and sex - even talking to a stranger can stimulate their release.

Exercise can also stimulates endorphin production, but for a different reason. Researchers have found that cardiovascular exercise doesn't produce endorphins, only heavy weights or training that incorporates sprinting or other anaerobic exertion. So why does this cause endorphins to be released?

When your body crosses over from an aerobic state to an anaerobic state, it's suddenly operating without enough oxygen to satisfy your muscles. This is when pain relief - something endorphins do well - is needed.

But what if you’ve been doing yoga? Is the sense of achievement all placebo? Fortunately, no it’s not. It turns out there are other chemicals at play.

Serotonin

CNN spoke to J. Kip Matthews, Ph.D, a sport and exercise psychologist, who explains that when you exercise, your brain increases production of neurotransmitters such as serotonin which send messages throughout your nervous system. 

In the case of exercise, those messages might be something along the lines of: "You're running! This is awesome! Cheer up!"

So even if you don’t push yourself into the anaerobic zone, heading to the gym will help you to feel better! Phew.

Sleep

We all know that sleep is good for you, but sometimes it’s hard to switch off. It may seem obvious but exercise makes you tired, and this in turn contributes to a more restful night's sleep. And a  better night’s sleep helps to alleviate stress. 

Just look at this graph showing the difference in stress levels between adults who sleep for more than eight hours a night, and adults who get less than this:

Source: APA via Statistica.

Source: APA via Statistica.

Conclusion

Whilst it might be hard to drag yourself to the gym if you’re stressed out and tired, a burst of endorphins, serotonin and a good night’s sleep may really help you to feel better - and in a completely natural way.