By Sheri R. Colberg, PhD, FACSM
At each dawn of a new year, many people make resolutions to be more physically active—only to fail in changing their lifestyle habits in a sustained manner. Don’t be one of the many who start exercising only to stop again a few months later. Read more about why daily release of feel-good brain hormones is so important and why you should learn how to relax more as well.
Go for Daily Exercise Release of Endorphins and Other Brain Hormones
One of the most publicized mental benefits of exercise resulting from a bodily change is the release of brain hormones. The primary hormones released are called endorphins, of which there are 40 types. Basically, they are stress hormones with receptors throughout your brain and body that calm you and relieve muscle pain during intense exercise. In the brain, they contribute to your feeling of well-being or “runner’s high” that usually arises during exercise, giving you a second wind. Exercise positively influences the same brain hormones (that is, endorphins, serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine) as antidepressant medications, but exercise is likely even more effective than drugs for treating depression. Each workout actually boosts your mood, at least for a little while.
Some people are positively addicted to this release of endorphins and need to get their daily dose. Endorphins also likely improve your body’s insulin action, thereby reversing or decreasing insulin resistance, which is why moderate aerobic training works so well for lowering it (1).
You also release dopamine in your brain during exercise, which is a key player in getting you to adopt an active lifestyle. When you release dopamine, it activates the pleasure centers in your brain, and you end up associating activity with an elevated sense of delight. That makes your brain recall pleasant feelings associated with training, and then you will be more likely to continue doing that activity to get your boost of feel-good hormones. Serotonin release, which physical activity causes, is associated with short-term improvements in your mood as well. As a bonus, you get the release of two brain endocannabinoids, which are brain neurotransmitters that dull pain. Exercise to get a maximal release of endorphins and other feel-good brain hormones on a daily basis. As a side benefit, you will feel less depressed and anxious and enjoy a greatly improved mood and better physical health.
Practice Relaxation as Well
Although each workout you do causes some physical damage to your muscles, you ultimately end up stronger, faster, and better, and your body responds by releasing fewer stress hormones (ones like cortisol, not brain endorphins) during subsequent workouts. Similarly, when you practice using relaxation techniques to control your mental stress levels, your mind learns to reduce your body’s sympathetic nervous stimulation as well. The more consistently you practice relaxation, the easier it is to avoid eliciting a strong stress response when “life happens” the next time (1).
During recovery, your parasympathetic nervous system keeps your heart rate low and digestion high, so it is no wonder that a warm shower, a big meal, and a long nap after a workout make you feel more relaxed. You are in an anabolic (building and repairing) state then, and your glycogen is being restored while your muscles are being repaired and strengthened. For best results, balance exercise with adequate rest and recovery from workouts as well.
Sport psychologists recommend relaxation to enhance performance in athletic events and even speed up healing from injuries. Relaxation techniques can help you control the stress of competition as well as the stress coming from other avenues of your life. One method to relax is to sit quietly and focus your mind. But you can even use relaxation techniques while exercising. For example, punch the air with your fists to release your anger or anxiety and consciously relax the tense muscles in your body. Use your imagination to visualize more blood flowing to all the parts of your body that need it (like your heart, muscles, hands, and feet). You may be able to enhance the blood flow to your feet simply by visualizing it, verifying that a strong mind–body connection really exists. Also, take deep and steady breaths and release them slowly, particularly during your warm-up and cool-down periods when you are not working out as hard. Whenever you start to feel winded during a workout, take deeper breaths to bring more oxygen into your lungs and body.
In summary, daily release of endorphins, dopamine, serotonin, and other mood-enhancing brain hormones and neurotransmitters through activity simultaneously better manages your blood glucose and improves your mental outlook. Learning how to use relaxation techniques can benefit you physically and mentally as well.
Excerpted from Colberg, SR, Chapter 6, “Thinking and Acting Like an Athlete,” in The Athlete’s Guide to Diabetes: Expert Advice for 165 Sports and Activities. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2019.
Sheri R. Colberg, PhD, is the author of The Athlete’s Guide to Diabetes: Expert Advice for 165 Sports and Activities (the newest edition of Diabetic Athlete’s Handbook), available in early 2019. She is also the author of Diabetes & Keeping Fit for Dummies. A professor emerita of exercise science from Old Dominion University and an internationally recognized diabetes motion expert, she is the author of 12 books, 28 book chapters, and over 400 articles. She was honored with the 2016 American Diabetes Association Outstanding Educator in Diabetes Award. Contact her via her websites (SheriColberg.com and DiabetesMotion.com).