exercise releases endorphins and dopamine

We know that regular exercise is important for maintaining a healthy body and reducing the risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease and diabetes. The importance of exercise for maintaining a healthy mind is now clearer. Studies have shown that exercise can help treat a variety of mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety, eating disorders, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and more. New research from Kaiser Permanente also shows that people who exercised more during the initial COVID-19 pandemic lockdown experienced less anxiety and depression than those who did not exercise.

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How can exercise have such a profound effect on our mental health? And if you have problems with your mental health, how do you motivate yourself to work?

Activates the “happiness hormone”
Physical activity stimulates the release of a neurotransmitter called dopamine, commonly known as the “happiness hormone”. Dopamine is released when you do things you enjoy, such as eating your favorite foods, shopping, having sex, and yes, exercising. Dopamine creates a cycle of stimulation, reward, and reinforcement. When we exercise, dopamine tells our brain that it is a pleasurable experience and that we should continue this activity.

For example, let’s say your favorite exercise is running. When you tie your shoes or stretch for a few minutes before starting, your brain can increase the release of dopamine. When you start running, a surge of dopamine hits your brain and strengthens your “desire” to participate in that activity. Your brain remembers this flow of dopamine and associates it with running, thus encouraging you to run again in the future.

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Exercise as a Treatment Method

Neurotransmitters called serotonin (a mood-stabilizing hormone) and norepinephrine (a hormone that increases the heart rate and helps break down fat) also increase during exercise. Norepinephrine and serotonin make a great pair. Together, these chemicals help fight episodes of depression and promote energy and alertness. Exercise, like drugs, increases the levels of serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine in the brain. Exercise improves and helps regulate neurotransmitter levels, which ultimately helps us feel mentally healthy. In fact, exercise can be a great way to treat mild to moderate mental health disorders without medication and potential side effects. For moderate to severe mental health disorders, exercise may be an adjunct to medication and treatment.

Other important mental health benefits of exercise include improved mood and energy, reduced stress, improved sleep, improved mental clarity, improved health and social relationships, and increased self-esteem.

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What counts as exercise?

There are many ways to exercise at your local gym besides running and lifting weights. For most people, moderate physical activity is sufficient to reap the mental health benefits. Moderate physical activity is when your breathing quickens, but you can still carry on a conversation. Here are some of my favorite options:

  • walking outside
  • dance
  • Online Education Lessons
  • Yoga
  • ride a bike
  • hiking
  • push the mower
  • to sweep or mop

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that adults do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity per week or 75 minutes per week of vigorous aerobic activity such as running, swimming, or jumping rope. It’s great to spread out your training throughout the week and incorporate both moderate and vigorous aerobic activity into your workout routine. For many adults, this means 30 minutes of exercise five days a week.

You can also reach your weekly activity goal with a few short vigorous activity sessions throughout the week (such as circuit training, lifting heavy weights) or a combination of moderate, vigorous and very vigorous activity every few days. In general, 75 minutes of vigorous activity per week can provide similar health benefits to 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity.

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If you haven’t exercised for a long time and still can’t reach 150 minutes a week, don’t worry. Everyone has to start somewhere – just set an achievable goal for the day. As you get stronger, you can increase your time and work up to the recommended amount. Don’t let it stop you from doing what you can do every day.


If you’re feeling down, exercising is probably the last thing you want to do. It’s important to understand that a lack of motivation can be a sign of depression, and it’s no one’s fault to feel that way. I teach my patients how to break the cycle of feeling unmotivated and encourage them to take one small step at a time. Something as small as convincing yourself to go outside for a few minutes can stimulate your brain to release dopamine and put you on the right track.

Exercising with other people can also be a great motivator. Group fitness classes can build a strong sense of community and introduce you to responsible partners. In one study, group fitness participants reported more mental health benefits than individual fitness participants. The researchers found that working in one group reduced stress by 26 percent and significantly improved quality of life, while those who exercised could see less change in their stress levels.

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You may be cautious about participating in group exercise during a pandemic, but there are many safe exercise options available. Activities like taking a brisk walk outside with friends, watching a group exercise video at home, walking in a local park or riding a family bike can combine exercise with social interaction.

Studies have found that sitting for long periods of time can also negatively affect your health. If you sit at work for several hours a day, try taking regular breaks throughout the day, such as walking to get some water to move, or getting up during phone calls or video meetings. If you work from home, stretch, walk, or climb stairs during breaks. If available, walk your dog. Pedal a stationary bike, walk or run on the treadmill, or do strength training on your lunch break or while watching TV at night. Even if you’re feeling short on time, there are still ways to reach your fitness goals!

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