There’s a reason exercise is at the top of many New Year resolutions lists — it’s because there’s too much science backing up how good it is.
We know it helps us lose weight, helps to prevent heart and lung diseases, makes us stronger and helps us to deal with stress.
But there is research which suggests yet another benefit. No, it isn’t improved sleep or even better sexual health, although these are also true.
Turns out, exercise makes you more sensitive to pleasure.
Regular exercise elicits more dopamine and more available dopamine receptors, as the brain’s reward centers (which includes the nucleus accumbens among other subcompartments) are stimulated. As a result, the brain’s capacity to enjoy the good things in life increases and the brain actually anticipates pleasure more readily.
Aside from the sometimes tedious responsibilities of everyday life, everything we do is because we think it will elicit pleasure either now or later. Dr. Kelly McGonigal said on the Model Health Podcast that there is nothing that has such an effect on the brain other than deep brain stimulation, which involves a surgically-implanted electrode in the reward system of the brain.
So if you’re not too keen on invasive surgery, exercise might be a good idea.
Researchers were curious to see if the introduction of an exercise program would help people who were in treatment for methamphetamine use. They found that after an eight-week exercise program, there was a significant increase in the availability of dopamine receptors in the brain’s reward system.
The group who instead received an educational program over the same eight weeks did not enjoy a significant improvement in the availability of dopamine receptors. This is very promising when it comes to substance abuse treatment as it suggests that in order to ameliorate addiction, talking is not nearly enough. Exercise is crucial.
If the quality of one’s life can be improved by taking on an exercise regimen, that sounds like a good deal, because not only does it promote pleasure, it reduces stress.
What’s more is that exercise is linked to the release of endocannabinoids which, when locked into the endocannabinoid receptors in the amygdala and prefrontal cortex, induce a state of calm. If you’ve ever wondered about the “runner’s high,” this seems to be the process underlying it.
While it seems counter-intuitive to engage in physical exertion to feel calm and happy, it’s hard to argue against the science.
So if your resolution to start exercising more has started to wane just a little bit, hopefully this encourages you to pick up a weight, put on some running shoes and stop questioning if you should cancel your gym membership.