Whether you dread or adore cardio workouts, it’s no secret that it serves a crucial purpose in any exercise plan. By getting your heart rate up and increasing blood circulation throughout your body, you can burn calories, reduce fat, improve your heart health, rev your metabolism, and much more.
Cardio also just makes you feel good. This is due to the release of endorphins. These can lead to lower levels of depression, fatigue, and stress. Here are four quick reasons exercise has such a positive impact on your brain and body.
Exercise is nature’s painkiller.
When you put your body to the test, your brain’s hypothalamus and pituitary gland produces neurochemicals called endorphins. These are considered nature’s painkillers. They bring about feelings of euphoria and well-being as well as highlight the “reward” circuit of your brain. That area is typically related to food, drink, sexual activity, and so forth.
“Exercise naturally energizes you,” explains Aaptiv trainer Jessica Muenster, ACE, CPT. “When you get your blood flowing and your body moving, you release endorphins which combat stress.”
Upon exercising, neurotransmitters like serotonin or norepinephrine help teach your body how to better respond to stressors. Studies even show that low levels of both are linked to depression and anxiety. So, higher levels of those chemicals during exercise naturally make you feel good.
It can be addictive . . . in the best way possible.
Runner’s high is a psychological condition where runners and feel invincible with little discomfort. It has long been attributed to endorphins. However, it’s actually fairly subjective. It occurs in conjunction with sustained aerobic exercise (running, but also swimming, cycling, or rowing). It is known to be rather addictive. Research shows reaching runner’s high can feel as good as being on a drug high. And, while that sensation can occasionally lead to exercise addiction, it most often simply helps people love their daily workouts—and more importantly, stick with them.
You’re practicing self-control and building brainpower.
“Cardio workouts can be very energizing,” says Muenster. “I’m much less energized if I do not run or workout in the morning. Sometimes it’s hard to get started. But it’s always worth it once you get past that initial tired phase and your body adjusts to what you’re doing.”
Aside from building energy, research shows cardio helps you boost learning ability and practice self-control. In one study, moving for as little as 15 minutes helped people better manage cigarette cravings and withdrawal symptoms, because exercise releases a neurotransmitter called GABA that helps control impulse and quiet anxious brain activity. Physical exercise also may increase levels of BDNF (brain-derived neurotropic factor), which can build healthier nerve cells, leading to enriched memory and heightened capacity for new concepts.
Cardio beats the blues and sparks energy.
Gretchen Reynolds, author of The First Twenty Minutes, says moving around for just 20 minutes a day better equips you to beat any blues or cultivate energy after a long day. That’s not to say you should stop at 20 minutes. But considering 80 percent of American adults do not meet national physical activity recommendations, it’s important to remember a little can go a long way. Exercise makes you feel better, so make it a priority even for small windows of time.
“Sometimes just getting away, and getting that alone time in that exercise provides, is what you need to be able to regroup and think,” says Muenster.