How does playing a sport keep us happier? Most of us are aware of what happens to the body when we play a sport. We build more endurance or more stamina. We feel how daily activities like climbing stairs become easier if we play regularly. When it comes to moods within our brains though, the connection isn’t so clear.
What triggers happiness in our brain when we play?
Here is what actually happens:
If you start playing, 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 like things are clear after playing.
At the same time, endorphins, another chemical to fight stress, are released in your brain. Your endorphins main purpose is this, writes researcher MK McGovern:
“These endorphins tend to minimize the discomfort of the sport, block the feeling of pain, and are even associated with a feeling of euphoria.”
There is a lot going on inside our brain and it is oftentimes a lot more active than when we are just sitting down or actually concentrating mentally.
So, BDNF and endorphins are the reasons playing the game makes us feel so good. The somewhat scary part is that they have a very similar and addictive behavior like morphine, heroin, or nicotine. The only difference? Well, it’s actually good for us.
Don’t do more, but focus on when
Now here is where it all gets interesting. We know the basic foundations of why playing makes us happy and what happens inside our brain cells. The most important part to uncover now is, of how we can trigger this in an optimal and longer lasting way?
A recent study sheds some light on the matter and the results are more than surprising. They found that to be more productive and happier on a given workday, it doesn’t matter so much, if you play a sport regularly, that you haven’t played on that particular day:
“Those who had played a game 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 played that morning.”
The bestselling author Gretchen Reynolds wrote a whole book about the subject matter called 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 everyday 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 the first 20 minutes of being active.”
So really, you can relax and don’t have to be on the lookout for the next killer game. All you have to do is get a focused 20 minutes in to get the full happiness boost every day:
“On sports days, people’s mood significantly improved after playing. The mood stayed about the same on days they didn’t, with the exception of people’s sense of calm which deteriorated.”(A recent study)
Make it a habit
Starting to play regularly or even daily is still easier said than done. At end of the day, there is quite a lot of focus required to get into the habit of playing daily. The most important part to note is that playing is a keystone habit. This means that daily sports can pave the way not only for happiness but also growth in all other areas of your life.
Here are some of the most important things to do in order to set up for success and make your daily sports fun:
- Put your sports outfit 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. Put everything the way you want it for the field before you go to sleep and put your alarm under your sports clothes. You will have a much easier time to convince yourself to put the sports outfit on.
- Track your exercises and log them at the same time after every exercise. When you try to play 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 playing sports. 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 field.
- Think about starting small and then start even smaller. Here is a little secret. When I first started playing, I did it with 15 minutes per day, 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.
The highest level of happiness happens at the beginning
Sports, 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 playing, the feeling of euphoria is the highest:
“The release of endorphins has an addictive effect, and more play is needed to achieve the same level of euphoria over time.” (MCGOVERN)
So if you have never played before (or not for a long time) then your happiness gains will be the highest if you start now.