It is the most famous quote from the movie Legally Blonde (which is making the rounds again now that it is available on Netflix): “Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy. Happy people just don’t shoot their husbands. They just don’t.”
It’s what most people think about when they think about the whole “working out is good for your mental health” advice bit.
Endorphins: The Cheerleaders in Your Brain
While it would be easy to chalk the simpleness of the quote up to Hollywood trying to push a plot point, there is real science there. Exercise really does give you endorphins and endorphins really do help improve your mental health. That runner’s high you’ve heard so much about? That’s an endorphin rush. Here’s how it works.
When you start to exercise, especially when the increased movement raises your heart rate, your brain interprets this as a “fight or flight” type stress response and does two things. It releases a protein called Brain-Derived Neurotropic Factor (BDNF) and releases hormones called endorphins.
BDNF is protective and pushes a sort of “reset” button in our memories which helps calm us down and allows us to think more clearly. The release of BDNF is why it is easier to think clearly when you are exercising.
Endorphins, in addition to triggering positive feelings throughout your body, help minimize the discomfort you feel during (and often immediately) after exercising. They bind to the same neuron receptors that pain medicines attach themselves too, which is why their effect is often similar.
Beyond the release of endorphins, your brain releases serotonin and a few other “happy making” chemicals. And, of course, as you move around, your heart pumps harder and faster, which increases the flow of blood to your brain, which helps increase your brain’s functionality.
Twenty Minutes A Day
“I don’t have time to spend hours at the gym every day,” you might say to yourself. Here’s some good news: you don’t have to spend hours at the gym every day. Heck you don’t even have to join a gym if you don’t want to. To create that endorphin rush and really help your mental health, you simply have to get your heart pumping for twenty minutes a day. It is that first twenty minutes of activity that provide the most benefits during a workout. So if you love running or working out for hours, great! Do it. If you don’t: try to get in at least twenty minutes every day.
Yes. Studies show that people who work out regularly are happier and have better mental function than those who don’t. It has also been proven that someone who has worked out on any given day will have better mental function and happiness levels than someone who hasn’t–even if that person worked out the day before. So, to get that good boost of happiness and mental functioning, you need to fit in your twenty minutes on a daily basis. And, if you want a prolonged effect, the earlier in your day you fit that twenty minutes in, the better.
Getting Into The Habit
There are a lot of things that you can do to get yourself into the habit of exercising for twenty minutes every day. Some recommend putting your exercise clothes over the top of your alarm clock so they’ll be the first things you grab in the morning. Others feel better simply scheduling it into their day as a to-do list item. You’ll have to figure out for yourself which method works for you. It might simply mean setting a calendar reminder for a couple of months to work out before your shower (why shower first if you’re just going to get all sweaty right after?).
If you can’t work out in the morning, that’s okay–once a day in the evenings is better than not at all. But you’ll feel better if you exercise before you go about your day.
Big Bad Feelings
It is important to note that if you suffer from mental health disorders like depression, exercise alone isn’t going to be enough. According to Therapy Tribe, a site that specializes in mental health education and pairing patients with the right anxiety or depression therapist, it’s good to lead a healthy lifestyle, but it is important to pair that healthy lifestyle with a solid support group and a qualified therapist. Do not try to go it alone!
Mostly know that if you’re suffering from depression, no matter how many lies it might tell you, there are things you can do about it. You can move around for twenty minutes (20 minute dance party anyone?) each day even if you don’t join a gym. You can find a therapist. You can feel better.