Exercise released endorphins – are they even a thing?

woman exercising with rope slams
Hiit training can be great for creating that natural high

What’s really going on in our minds and bodies when we exercise to make us feel oh so good and how does it impact our mental health? Ronelle Richards takes a look at the science behind the mood-boosting health practices you need to incorporate into your routine – yesterday.

Like Taylor Swift taught us, when things are bringing you down, you try to shake it off. Or run it off. Or box, lift and sweat it off, until you don’t think about it anymore. But can training really lift your mood and significantly improve your mental health? 

The science seems to say yes – which is good news for the one in seven Aussies who experience depression, and one in four who will suffer from anxiety at least once in their lifetime.

Boost your brain

Melbourne exercise physiologist, Jennifer Smallridge, says the reason we feel so damn good post-workout is partly neurochemical. Your serotonin levels are boosted (that feel good hormone) and your brain-derived neurotrophic factor increases (like a fertiliser for brain cells, explains Smallridge).Your vascular endothelial growth factor – responsible for memory and brain health – also gets enhanced, and so does your endocannabinoid system, thought to be responsible for the coveted ‘runner’s high’.

Combined, these chemicals work to reduce our levels of stress hormones, form new neurons and protect our brains.

“This gives us a lovely mood lift during and after exercise,” says Smallridge – although it may not feel like it mid-burpee. 

“Given our evolutionary biology required us to be relatively fit and strong in order to survive, I personally believe that you get a neurological reward when we are active to encourage us to do it more often!”

Psychological rewiring

Beyond the chemical, simply completing a training session – particularly a challenging one – has been shown to not only help reduce stress, but also resist stresses in the future.   

“This is known as ‘mastery’– the idea that it feels good to accomplish something,” says Smallridge.

“Exercise, particularly in the morning, has been shown to increase our capacity to deal with emotional stressors and solving problems. When combined with social interaction, the benefits of exercise for mental health increase even further.”

One study by Raichlen and Alexander out of the University of Arizona found that runners’ brains seemed to be more connected than non-runners brains. This further supports mounting evidence that exercise helps prevent declining cognitive health as we age.

Playing a team sport can also be helpful

A ‘cure’ for depression?

It’s not quite that simple. Performance psychologist and director of Vashti Performance Services, Emma Hall, also believes in the power of exercise – although she warns more serious mental health conditions need a holistic treatment approach. 

“More and more evidence indicates that along with clinical interventions such as counselling and medication, simple lifestyle changes can greatly assist in treating anxiety and depression,” she tells Strong

“Many studies have found that exercise is just as effective in treating these mood disorders as clinical forms of therapy. Changing our levels of physical activity, and taking care of our wellbeing with healthy nutrition and adequate sleep, are key factors in changing our moods on a daily basis, and also in treating diagnosed anxiety and depression.”

Research tends to agree. A meta-analysis of 25 randomised controlled trials studies in the Journal of Psychiatric Research found regular exercise to be a significant antidepressant – partly due to the aforementioned hormonal and chemical changes that occur. 

Another study out of Yale and Oxford Universities looked at the exercise habits of 1.2 million Americans and found those who exercised experienced 1.5 fewer days of poor mental health compared to those who didn’t. 

The study found exercising for about 45 minutes, three to five times a week, reaped the most benefits. Exercise could also include tasks such as housework and lawn-mowing, as well as the more obvious forms such as cycling, running and hitting the gym. Out of 75 forms of training recorded, those that proved most beneficial were team sports, cycling, aerobic and gym exercise – each reducing poor mental health days by 20–22 per cent.

Which exercise is best?

You’ve read the science and you know you should get moving. But which type of exercise will help the most? Smallridge says finding the right exercise prescription is key. Here are her top activities: 

For easing anxiety

Research suggests the best exercise for those with anxiety is anything rhythmic, predictable and mainly aerobic – all to help elicit a calming effect on you afterwards. Activities with a focus on breath and body awareness helps break the cycle of negative thoughts.

  • Yoga 
  • Pilates 
  • Walking
  • Cycling
  • Swimming
  • Rowing
  • Tai Chi
  • Dancing
woman walking
Walking is great for helping to calm the mind

For fighting depression

The key exercises for depression need to have both structure and consistency. Exercises should be of at least moderate intensity to be most effective, and should be performed three to four times a week for at least 12 weeks.

  • HIIT
  • Team sports
  • Running
  • Brisk walks
  • Outdoor activities
  • Resistance training

A weight lifted

Reducing anxiety and depression has traditionally been linked with endorphins released during aerobic or cardio exercise, but one paper published in JAMA Psychiatry shows strength training also has significant benefits.  

After analysing 33 experiments on weight training and depression, researchers found lifting weights consistently reduced a person’s symptoms of depression, including improving low mood, lack of interest in activities and feelings of worthlessness.

The benefits appeared to be the same if you lifted twice a week or every day. What’s more, the act of training was found to be more important than hitting PBs; even those participants that didn’t increase their strength, still experienced improvements in their mental health.

Another study from the University of Georgia found women who suffered Generalised Anxiety Disorder experienced a 60 per cent reduction in feelings of worry after lifting weights for just six weeks.

Again, this is due not only to chemical changes but also variations in thinking. The physical toll and focus needed at the barbell forces you to be in the present moment – meaning you’re inadvertently practising mindfulness when you lift. Mindfulness can help combat anxiety by removing the ability of your mind to ruminate on those repetitive negative thoughts that plague anxiety sufferers.

HIIT that

Training hard but fast has been the cornerstone for time-poor fans of HIIT workouts, but they are also useful for those suffering depression or great emotional stress, such as grief.

One study out of McMaster University introduced HIIT to inactive participants and found the exercise provided a buffer against depressive symptoms. However, the participants experienced an increase in stress and anxiety. This could be attributed to the intensity of HIIT that elicits a strong physical stress response such wobbly legs, shortness of breath and a pounding heart that mimic anxiety. 

“The theory behind this is that the nervous system is already ‘on guard’ in those with anxiety disorders, and therefore HIIT training or heavy strength exercises which spike the heart rate and blood pressure may not be as appropriate,” says Smallridge.

If competing, repetition and structure is your thing, HIIT might be a good choice.

Go green

Swap the treadmill for a run in the park and place a Peace Lily next to your yoga mat, because it’s not just the exercise you do but also where you do it that matters. 

A multitude of studies have shown the benefits of green exercise (exercising in nature) as an effective way to decrease stress and lift your mood. Research from the University of Exeter found that 120 minutes spent in nature per week led to significantly improved health and higher psychological wellbeing. 

The research found the 120 minutes threshold applied to both women and men of all ages, across different occupational and ethnic groups, among both rich and poor locations, and even among people with long term illnesses or disabilities. But you don’t need to do it all at once – smaller sessions across the week produced the same results.   

Where you exercise can make a difference to how you feel.

Hot tip: gut feeling

Training isn’t the only secret to improved mental health – the health of the microbiota in your gut can also play a role. You know that feeling you get when you’re a bit nervous – the one where your stomachs churning right before a big work presentation? That’s the ‘gut-brain axis’, where your gut and brain send signals to each other. 

A recent study showed that giving the ‘good’ bacteria lactobacillus (which is also found in yoghurt) to mice reduced their anxiety levels. A further two studies in humans found the bacteria in the faecal matter of severely depressed people was different to the bacteria of the healthy participants. It’s also been shown that stress and the release of cortisol can also impact your microbiota. 

Although science is yet to prove a definite link, we do know the health benefits of a healthy diet on your gut. Adding in some probiotic and prebiotics into your diet can help restore your microbiota. Prebiotic foods include onion, garlic, leeks, artichokes, cabbage, asparagus and oats. You can add probiotics by trying kefir, yogurt, kombucha, apple cider vinegar and fermented foods like kimchi. 

Finding your sweet spot

While different forms of exercise have been shown to have their own plethora of mood-boosting benefits, the real take-away from this batch of research is quality over quantity. Incorporating exercise into your life and applying it to your individual situation is crucial. 

“There is no point forcing yourself to do an activity if you just don’t enjoy it, as the lack of enjoyment and motivation will outweigh the benefits. So start by selecting an activity you enjoy,” says Hall. 

“Ideally, performing 30 minutes or more of exercise, three to five times per week, is likely to improve symptoms. But incorporating smaller blocks of activity, even 10 minutes at a time, throughout your day is also beneficial and sometimes easier to maintain long-term.”

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