You know the drill: you drag yourself to the gym in the mornings, and then, within minutes, you start feeling energized.
Fast-forward to after your workout, and you’re probably feeling pretty happy; there’s a spring in your step. As a bonus, your body continues to burn fat much more efficiently throughout the day. All this contributes to a better looking, and better feeling, you.
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Understanding some of the physiology taking place in your body as a result of exercise can help motivate you to continue working out, even on days when it’s hard to get out of bed.
Here, we take a look at how the emotional and physical benefits of exercise last beyond your hour in the gym.
The Happy Chemical
Our body is equipped with a natural “happy drug,” which has similar effects as morphine. All we need to do is start moving our bodies to activate it.
Exercise releases endorphins, which help you feel more positive and relaxed, and reduce perceptions of pain. Endorphins are chemicals in the brain, spinal cord and other areas of the body, which fit into the same receptors like keys fit into locks as pain medication. Of course, natural endorphins don’t lead to addiction, like pain medications and other drugs do, and they don’t have any negative side effects, either. Instead, they help reduce anxiety, ward off depression and even improve sleep patterns.
Exercising for just 20 to 30 minutes can trigger the release of these endorphins. Moderate aerobic exercise is the most effective way to trigger endorphins (which include serotonin, a chemical that helps alleviate depression). Cardio activities also reduce cortisol, a hormone released from the adrenals when you’re stressed. Regular exercise calms down the fight-flight response, so your body releases less cortisol, a chemical partially responsible for belly fat and osteoporosis.
“Exercise is a magic drug for many people experiencing depression and anxiety disorders and is becoming more and more prescribed by mental health providers,” says psychiatrist Daniel Amen. “Studies have shown that individuals who exercise report fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression and lower levels of stress and anger.”
However, keep in mind that when it comes to endorphin release, pushing your body harder and harder during your fitness routine won’t necessarily lead to more and more endorphins. The body only has a limited number of endorphins to release at a time, and exercising to the level of exhaustion can actually deplete these resources.
The key to consistent endorphin release involves regular exercise: the more regularly you exercise, the happier and more relaxed you will feel, even after your workout is over. Studies show that positive effects of exercise, ranging from reduced anxiety to increased self-esteem, can last for hours, and even days afterward.
Benefits On The Brain
Exercise doesn’t just strengthen your muscles and sense of wellbeing; it also boosts your brainpower. Research has shown that exercise can increase your reaction time, improve memory, sharpen your wit and make your feel more alert.
It can also help combat the aging process. Studies show that telomeres, located on the end of chromosomes and involved in cell division, remain longer in people who exercise. That’s important, because when telomeres become too short through the process of cell division, the cell dies. So, exercise actually impacts the longevity of cells, helping them, essentially, remain “younger.”
We all know exercise burns calories during a workout. What’s less commonly known is how it boosts your metabolism overall, so that your newly-fit body continues to burn more fat throughout the day, even while you’re at rest.
The more muscle you build, the more calories you burn. Muscles are much more efficient at burning calories than fat cells, and they continue to use this caloric fuel even when you’re not exercising.
As you age, muscle mass naturally decreases, and that slows your metabolism. Building muscle helps slow aging-related muscle decline.
One or two sets of 12 to 15 weightlifting repetitions twice a week, targeting major muscle groups like your legs, arms, glutes and abs, should do the trick.
Physical activity also produces dopamine, and that’s a good thing, because when your brain doesn’t have enough dopamine, you crave more food (often carbs) to raise dopamine levels.
In conclusion: Exercise is about far more than just looking great in a swimsuit. It improve your mood, metabolism and body functions, from your cognitive acuity to your cellular longevity.
Get out there, and enjoy the afterglow.