Exercise has been touted to be a cure for nearly everything in life, from depression, to memory loss, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s and more. At the same time, similar to the topic of sleep, I found myself having very little specific and scientific knowledge about what exercise really does to our bodies and our brains.
“Yes, yes, I know all about it, that’s the thing with the endorphins, that makes you feel good and why we should exercise and stuff, right?” is what I can hear myself say to someone bringing this up. I would pick up things here and there, yet really digging into the connection of exercise and how it effects us has never been something I’ve done.
Inspired by a recent post from Joel on what makes us happy I’ve set out to uncover the connection between our feeling of happiness and exercising regularly.
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What triggers happiness in our brain when we exercise?
Most of us are aware of what happens to the body when we exercise. We build more muscle or more stamina. We feel how daily activities like climbing stairs becomes easier if we exercise regularly. When it comes to our brain and mood though, the connection isn’t so clear.
The line around our “endorphins are released” is more something I throw around to sound smart, without really knowing what it means. Here is what actually happens:
If you start exercising, your brain recognizes this as a moment of stress. As your heart pressure increases, the brain thinks you are either fighting the enemy or fleeing from it. To protect yourself and your brain from stress, you release a protein called BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor). This BDNF has a protective and also reparative element to your memory neurons and acts as a reset switch. That’s why we often feel so at ease and things are clear after exercising and eventually happy.
At the same time, endorphins, another chemical to fight stress, is released in your brain. Your endorphins main purpose is this writes researcher McGovern:
These endorphins tend to minimize the discomfort of exercise, block the feeling of pain and are even associated with a feeling of euphoria.
Overall, there is a lot going on inside our brain and it is in fact oftentimes a lot more active than when we are just sitting down or actually concentrating mentally:
So, BDNF and endorphins are the reasons exercise makes us feel so good. The somewhat scary part is that they have a very similar and addictive behavior like morphine, heroine or nicotine. The only difference? Well, it’s actually good for us.
The key to maximize happiness through exercise: don’t do more, but focus on when
Now here is where it all gets interesting now. We know the basic foundations of why exercising makes us happy and what happens inside our brain cells. The most important part to uncover now, is of course how we can trigger this in an optimal and longer lasting way.
A recent study from Penn State university shed some light on the matter and the results are more than surprising. They found that to be more productive and happier on a given work day, it doesn’t matter so much, if you work-out regularly, if you haven’t worked out on that particular day:
“Those who had exercised during the preceding month but not on the day of testing generally did better on the memory test than those who had been sedentary, but did not perform nearly as well as those who had worked out that morning.”
New York Times best-selling author Gretchen Reynolds has written a whole book about the subject matter titled “The first 20 minutes”. To get the highest level of happiness and benefits for health, the key is not to become a professional athlete. On the contrary, a much smaller amount is needed to reach the level where happiness and productivity in every day life peaks:
“The first 20 minutes of moving around, if someone has been really sedentary, provide most of the health benefits. You get prolonged life, reduced disease risk — all of those things come in in the first 20 minutes of being active.”
So really, you can relax and don’t have to be on the look-out for the next killer work-out. All you have to do is get some focused 20 minutes in to get the full happiness boost every day:
“On exercise days, people’s mood significantly improved after exercising. Mood stayed about the same on days they didn’t, with the exception of people’s sense of calm which deteriorated.” (University of Bristol)
How to get into a consistent exercise habit: The dance with the endorphins
Now, that’s all nice to hear you might say, starting to exercise regularly or even daily is still easier written than done. At end of the day, there is quite a lot of focus required to help you get into the habit of exercising daily. The most important part to note first, is that exercise is a “keystone” habit according to Charles Duhigg, New York Times bestselling author of “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business“. This means that daily exercise can pave the way not only for happiness, but also growth in all other areas of your life.
In a recent post from Joel, he wrote abou the power of daily exercise for his every day life. Coincidentally, he follows the above rules very accurately and exercises daily before doing anything else. He writes:
By 9:30am, I’ve done an hour of coding on the most important task I have right now on Buffer, I’ve been to the gym and had a great session, and I’ve done 30 minutes of emails. It’s only 9:30am and I’ve already succeeded, and I feel fantastic.
I’ve spoken lots to Joel about his habit of exercising and here are some of the most important things to do, in order to set yourself up for success and make your daily exercise fun:
- Put your gym clothes right over your alarm clock or phone when you go to bed: This technique sounds rather simple, but has been one of the most powerful ones. If you put everything the way you want it for the gym before you go to sleep and put your alarm under your gym clothes, you will have a much easier time to convince yourself to put your gym clothes on.
- Track your exercises and log them at the same time after every exercise: When you try to exercise regularly, the key is to make it a habit. One way to achieve this is to create a so called “reward”, that will remind you of the good feelings you get from exercising. In our big list of top web apps, we have a full section on fitness apps that might be handy. Try out Fitocracy or RunKeeper to log your work-outs. Try to have a very clear logging process in place. Log your work-out just before you go into the shower or exactly when you walk out of the gym.
- Think about starting small and then start even smaller: Here is a little secret. When I first started exercising, I did it with 5 minutes per day, 3 times a week. Can you imagine that? 5 minutes of timed exercise, 3 times a week? That’s nothing you might be thinking. And you are right, because the task is so easy and anyone can succeed with it, you can really start to make a habit out of it. Try no more than 5 or 10 minutes if you are getting started.
There are lots more great ideas for how you can create a habit from Joel in his post on the exercise habit, be sure to check it out, it might be a lot of help here. I am sure that if you dedicate just very little time, you can get into an awesome exercise routine that makes you happier, more productive and relaxed than ever before.
Quick last fact: You get the highest level of happiness with exercise if you are just starting out
As a quick last fact, exercise, the increase of the BDNF proteins in your brain acts as a mood enhancer. The effects are similar to drug addiction one study found. So when you start exercising, the feeling of euphoria is the highest:
“The release of endorphins has an addictive effect, and more exercise is needed to achieve the same level of euphoria over time.” (McGovern)
So this means that if you have never exercised before or not for a long time, your happiness gains will be the highest if you start now.
Exercise and how it affects our level of happiness is an absolutely exciting topic for me. Have you played around with this too and seen any results? I would love to hear your thoughts on how exercise and happiness work together.
Photo credit: katapulsemusic
How do they do it? Among writers, the earnest audience member at a literary festival who asks, ‘Do you write by hand or on a computer?’ is a sort of running joke; an occasion for the rolling of eyes. And yet, let’s enter a note in defence of that audience member: how novelists and the authors of literary nonfiction go about their work is interesting. If, as Kingsley Amis argued, most of a writer’s work is the application of the seat of one’s trousers to the seat of the chair, it’s legitimate to ask: what trousers, what chair, sexuality where and when? In my experience the answers are wildly different from writer to writer; an experience borne out by our sampling — 400 words a day, or 15,000? A bath for inspiration, or exercise? Endless redrafting or first thought, best thought?
Sam Leith, literary editor
If you are a writer of my disposition you tend to grasp any opportunity for self–sabotage and distraction. So here’s my shabby, rapidly declining two bob’s worth.
The process to me is generally an ideal I am working towards or aspiring to, like drinking less or going to the gym more. Whenever I pompously declare ‘I’m at my desk every morning by 7 a.m.’ a cynical voice in my head screams ‘You wish!’ But the good news is that it’s easier to stop a teenager from masturbating than a real writer from writing.
The ideal I aspire to is rising at 6 a.m., having a light breakfast, being at my desk till 10.30, and hammering out words, lots and lots of them, with an utter disregard for quality or structure, while music blares in the background. Then I’ll pack up and go to the boxing club for a workout — either a circuit, sparring on the pads, or some weights and cardio. This takes you away from the writing and, paradoxically, forgetting about it for a while allows the subconscious to do the heavy lifting.
Spending a lot of time obsessing about something the rest of the world has no connection with or window into is probably not a recipe for healthy relationships. I’ve learned a lot of de-roling techniques from actors; they have helped me considerably in reorienting myself back into the real world. But even they don’t work when you are in that crazy place — the home straight, where you just have to batter those keys until you break the book or it breaks you. That’s when your music goes off, your partner heads to her sister’s and your cat loses weight.
Is it worth it? Well that’s a question you can’t even consider if you’re a real writer, because it’s just what you do and you are not going to stop until you drop.
Irvine Welsh’s The Blade Artist is out now.
Of course I began with pen and ink and paper, and paper was expensive in terms of pocket money, so I asked for W.H. Smith tokens for Christmas. Then a neighbour brought up a stash of assorted old office notebooks from hiding somewhere, so the first novel was written in ‘Ledger’ and ‘Salaries’.
I wrote by hand, on A4 ruled with feint and margin, for the next 20 years, making notes in whatever was to hand, often those red shiny Silvine ones from Woolworths. Those notebooks and MSs are now safely housed in handsome red boxes in Eton College library.
When the books were finished I typed them up on my father’s old Remington. I could never write directly on to it; too much clatter, too much metal coming between me and the words.
And so it continued until my first laptop, which changed everything. Laptops — close to you, quiet, instinctive, smooth to use. I can think on to a laptop. But I still make notes in notebooks, and write by hand if I need to hear what I am writing, think slowly and carefully. Keyboards run away with you.
I shock creative writing students, their tutors even more, when I say I only ever write one draft. But it’s true. It just comes out of my head through my ears on to the page. I finish, correct and tidy up, and that’s it. If I get stuck, or reach the end knowing this one just doesn’t work, I throw it away. There’s always another idea or three waiting in the wings, or the notebook.
I think for a long time — books stew for months — make a few notes, then go. No creative writing course would accept me, but I am too old to change my ways and in any case, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Susan Hill’s Jacob’s Room Is Full Of Books is out in October.
In the sixth form we’d get assigned essays to be written over the Christmas holidays. I always did these right away, either on Friday night or Saturday morning. Not because I liked writing but because the homework cast such a blight over the holiday that it was best to get it over with. I look back on that period as a precocious summit of self-discipline.
I’d love to recapture that iron resolve now, more than 40 years later, when it takes longer and longer to settle down to things, to fight off the dread of having to concentrate, when it seems likely that the only parole from this life sentence of homework will come with dementia or death. On the other hand, when I was younger, there were more things to tempt me out of the house, so it’s actually easier to stay put, girding my loins in front of the computer.
My greatest achievement as a writer is undoubtedly the highly refined autocorrect settings on my laptop. Hundreds of words emerge fully formed from a few abbreviations. Sometimes these represent a saving of only a character or two — ‘mtn’ instantly becomes ‘mountain’ — but you put all these little savings together, over the course of a lifetime of writing and you’ve (‘uve’) probably (‘probly’) gained a couple of years even if thinking up, implementing and occasionally withdrawing shortcuts (‘ben’ becoming ‘been’ was great until Ben Webster turned into ‘Been’) will have taken far longer.
It is entirely in keeping with the vagaries of my nature that I fritter away my time fretting over things like this rather than making more meaningful programmes. (That was meant to come out as ‘progress’.)
Geoff Dyer’s latest novel is White Sands.
For years I tried to avoid building up ‘writing habits’. They quickly become writing tics that get in the way of just sitting down and getting on with putting words on a page. When working on my first novel, I wrote in the daytime as well as the night, wrote by longhand as well as on my computer, wrote in one continent or another, just so long as I had a quiet space.
But at a certain point, habits creep in. Sometimes for your own good: though I’m nocturnal I force myself to write during the day, so that I can be done by the evening. Sometimes for the sake of convenience: it’s been years since I wrote longhand — editing is so much easier on a laptop. Sometimes for no good reason except that every writer needs to have something to be irrational about: while I can still shift from one continent to the next as I write, I can no longer — as I did with my first three novels — write while looking at a wall. I need a window to look out of, or better yet, a table and chair outdoors so I’m unenclosed.
I could pretend that lack of enclosure is necessary for the imagination to feel unbound, or some such hooey. Truth is, I let down my guard, I allowed in a tic, and now it’s taken up residence and won’t be shifted.
Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire was longlisted for the 2017 Man Booker Prize and will be released on 15 August.
I establish rules (ear defenders, Apple laptop, not online, particular font for a particular novel, dedication up front, always hunched over my desk, etc etc) and then break them without the slightest qualm. Each book has its own way of defining what its wants and needs are.
What I do know is that Art is Innocent. This is my mantra. And Ambition Corrodes the Soul.
The work likes to be fluid. Fluidity is joyful — if you are having fun you throw things at the page willy-nilly. Having said that, I generally write something, reread it, read it again, reread, read it out loud, read, reread, congratulate myself, castigate myself. Back and forth x 1,000. Phew. The first paragraph.
I never write about what I know — so the whole world is my oyster (because I know so little!)
I don’t take myself seriously. I do take the work seriously. I still don’t really consider myself ‘a writer’, just someone who enjoys writing.
I am unashamedly agenda-driven, even though I often don’t have a clue about what my agenda is.
Never mollycoddle the reader. Heaven forbid! They deserve so much better.
Nicola Barker’s latest novel is H(A)PPY.
I have a beautifully quiet workroom at home, but somehow the expectant hush in there raises the stakes intolerably, and I only use it in an emergency. Instead I put my laptop in my bag and make my way to a café which meets my needs for a steady background murmur of other people’s conversation, and decent coffee. Also, for tolerance of a gurning, teeth-picking, hair-twiddling, head-scratching man in the corner who sits for hours at a time, only buying Americanos. If anything, my present café is a little bit too white and bright and hipster-aspirational. There used to be one nearby that almost perfectly embodied my ideal of shabbiness and decay: but then it exceeded it, lost all its remaining clients, and closed.
So now I’m ensconced among coders and bike messengers and new mothers venturing out to meet their friends with tiny, tiny babies in slings. If I were a better human being, I expect I would be tempted to eavesdrop, but luckily my solipsism is great enough that I can treat the talk as a bath of lovely white noise, in which (I don’t know why) I can usually find the thread of whatever I am thinking about. 400 or 500 words is an OK day, 700 or 800 words is a good day, and anything over 1,000 words is an astonishing, greased-lightning, festal superfluke of a day.
Francis Spufford’s first novel Golden Hill won the 2016 Costa Prize for a debut novel.
I don’t have many fixed habits except this — read anything relevant for a long time, maybe for 18 months, hungrily, anywhere it can be found; make notes, most of them on the pages of the books I am reading, and few of which get looked at again; keep a dictaphone in the car for fugitive phrases; then write the thing, very fast, 2,000 or 3,000 words a day every day for a couple of months, then stop and show it to someone. It is undoubtedly in bad shape. Susan Watt, who was my editor for many years, usually said at this stage, ‘I think you’d better take another year.’ A few months later, by which time a viable structure will hopefully have made itself clear, I write it again, fast enough, quarry-ing the first version, dumping the rubbish. This is best done alone in a very quiet place, with an excellent hot water system, as a bath is the only place to untangle the knots. Never more than four baths a day. Meanwhile: love the reader.
Adam Nicolson’s The Seabird’s Cry: The Life and Loves of Puffins, Gannets and Other Ocean Voyagers is available now.
I learned to write professionally by working for IPC comics and magazines. You were trained to make every element of the story (continuity, picture, speech balloons, characters etc) drive the plot and reveal the elements in properly paced scenes. No deus ex machina allowed. Introduction. Development. Resolution. Every manuscript I produced in my early days had exactly the same number of pages. I created a series of formulas which proved useful in writing the fantasy novels I produced in my late teens and twenties. Because I was a very fast typist, I could produce a novel in three days. Knowing precisely what element is needed as you go helps considerably.
I’d get up, make the wife a cuppa, get the kids to school, start work and have an hour off for lunch, finishing around 6 p.m. — 15,000 words a day. However, as my literary skills and ambitions grew, I became a prisoner of those formulas, knowing too many narrative tricks; so I had to rid myself of conventions I had created. I developed what I hoped was a different structure for every novel or novel sequence.
Mother London was like a wheel and the Pyat sequence essentially linear. I had written Gloriana as a simple allegory divided into four parts conforming to the seasons and offering a kind of argument to Spenser. By the time I wrote my War Amongst the Angels books, I was using a consciously musical structure and making them seem as loose and lyrical as possible. With every book I set the goals higher and made them more difficult, believing that a certain tension is added to a story which means it doesn’t get stale to the reader.
I’m slower these days and have no kids to consider but knowing what elements I need for structure still helps me work pretty quickly, though I now take three years rather than three days to finish a book.
Michael Moorcock’s Legends of the Multiverse is published by Hollywood Comics.
I write in bed next to a coffee machine.
Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story won the 2010 Salon Book Award.