How to be happy: The benefits of daily exercise

Have you ever heard someone say the only reason they like working out is the feeling they have when they’re finished working out? Maybe you’ve said this yourself. But what about the long term? After that rush of endorphins fades away, are there any lingering positive effects, besides muscle tone and stamina? A recent study from Penn State says yes, there may be.

How exercise makes your brain happier

First, let’s look at what happens in your brain while you’re exercising that makes you feel all those happy feels. When you exercise, your brain secretes a protein called BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor), which happens during fight or flight moments of stress. Your heart-rate increases and your breath moves from a restful state to heavy breathing (or in some cases a desperate gasp!). Your brain doesn’t know if you’re fighting or fleeing and in the process releases BDNF. This protein’s effect is both reparative and restorative, which is why we feel so calm and eventually happy afterwards.

The brain also releases endorphins, which are peptides released in the brain that activate your body’s opiate receptors, creating an analgesic effect. Basically, they block the pain and discomfort of exercising and instead leave you with a feeling of euphoria. Sounds fantastic right? This is why for most of us, we feel better and calmer after working out. But what about the next day and the day after that?

How to be happy: It's all about the journey

Many people push their bodies towards a goal that they think will make them happy, whether it’s losing a certain amount of weight or getting chiseled abs. In reality, it turns out that the exercise we do on the way to reaching those goals is actually the secret of how to be happy.

In other words, happiness is a means to an end rather than the end itself. According to that Penn State study, working out regularly makes us feel happier and more productive every day, not just the days we exercise.

How to be happy: Start out slow

You don't have to exercise 40-hours a week to get these benefits. That's good news for freelancers, whose time is money! These benefits can be felt in just 20 minutes of exercise a day. In Gretchen Reynolds book entitled, “The first 20 minutes”, she says that in those 20 minutes, you’ll get a daily happiness boost and all the other health benefits of prolonged exercise too, like longer life and a reduced risk of heart disease.

We know sometimes even carving out 20 minutes can be a daunting challenge. The important thing is to get in the habit. Charles Duhigg, New York Times bestselling author of The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business says exercise is a “keystone” habit that can lead to growth in other areas of life.

Been driving for Uber all day? Working on that big design project? Start out slow by working a 5-10 minute exercise break into your day. Build up the habit through repetition of this easy commitment. This could include a brisk walk before leaving the house for work, jogging with your dog, or taking a lunch time walk to move your body.

How to be happy: Build healthy habits

Raw foods expert David Wolfe once said the most powerful thing about nutrition is, “one thing leads to another.” Eat an apple in place of a cookie and you’ll be more likely to eat something healthier next time too, reducing the risk of eating more sugar. If you can start with some simple exercises every day or every other day, and commit to it, your chances of health and happiness will expand because you’ll be on pace to keep exercising and feeling better.

So find the time to carve out for you, for your health and for your happiness. Again, the silver lining here is you don't need to strive for some idea of health you may have, or try to get somewhere in order to be happier (I'll be happier when I weigh "X" or have washboard abs, or etc.). All you need is to do the thing and you'll be happier!

Wondering how to carve out the time?

Check back next week when we’ll share tips specifically designed to help freelancers fit exercise into their day.