How Exercise Makes Us Feel

That Exercise FeelingHow did you feel after your last workout? (Apply as many adjectives as fit the occasion.) Now think about how others perceive exercise. Let’s say you stop a random hundred people on the street and ask them how exercise makes/would make them feel. I’m going to guess you’d get an interesting cross-section of answers, likely slanted toward the negative (mostly from people who don’t regularly exercise, but – hey – that’s just MY guess, right?). Call me cynical, but when many people think about exercise, I think their minds go directly to pain, soreness, sweat, and the general unpleasantness of it all. That’s unfortunate to say the least. I’m not going to claim that my most intensive workouts don’t leave me tired or even slightly sore (genuine pain is something different). Nonetheless, I get way too much out of my Primal exercise to feel it’s something to be “endured” – or even avoided. This brings me to those other answers – the ones more likely from folks who exercise on a regular basis (whether their workouts involve gym time, outdoor play, an active hobby or something else). What else does exercise make us feel – in the moment, after the workout and later once the results start showing?

Let’s just jump right in, shall we?

The Release

A friend of Carrie’s described it this way: “I walk out the door and leave all the day’s stress – the work pressures, the kids’ whining, the messy kitchen, the school paperwork. As I walk faster and quickly begin to run, it’s like shedding layers of weight and moving into flight.” I love that observation. When we’re in our bodies, we have a better chance of being in the present. We get a break from neurotic worry and obsessive planning that can drive too many of our waking hours. (If we find ourselves still mired in self-talk during workouts, we either need to find something more intense or figure out a way to truly play. It’s thankfully difficult to make a mental shopping list while playing a game of Ultimate.)

When we strip exercise of “obligation,” we can appreciate the opportunities it gives us to live differently for a time. When we start to see our workouts as the break we look forward to – or a seamless part of enjoying life and socialization – instead of a personal task to cram in, something essential opens. It’s a threshold I would see my clients cross (and one I rediscovered for myself when fitness again became personal rather than primarily professional). In my opinion, the best rewards – both physical and psychological – come past that threshold.

The Pride

It doesn’t matter in the moment whether you skipped five workouts before this one. Right now you’re moving, and (barring a serious penchant for self-flagellation) there’s a real gratification to this fact that cancels out the rest. You’re lapping everyone who’s at home sitting on the couch. This matters. And the sense of accomplishment only grows with time. Each additional mile run, every better race time, each increase in poundage lifted boosts the feeling. It’s not just a fitness increase. It’s a victory over our perceived limitations as well as a win for discipline and self-management.

The “High”

We work for it, to be sure, but it can feel like a peak experience when it does. At times, I’d say, it puts me at the very center of being, which is kind of a Zen take on what is really an activation of the body’s endorphin release and endocannabinoid system. (PDF) (Whose attention perked up at the mention of cannabinoid?) The fact is, when we’re exercising, we’re shifting all kinds of biochemical gears (everything from neurotransmitter levels, BDNF release and endocannabinoid engagement) because the body perceives our efforts as a physical stress and responds with natural pain-relieving strategies. In longer duration, high intensity activity, the response (whether a primary cause of the endorphin or the endocannabinoid system) can impact emotion as well as physical sensation. Those who have felt the full-on high won’t forget it.

The Clarity

When I’m stuck on something – a work issue, writer’s block, a personal question – moving is about the only thing that makes sense. My best ideas come when I’m biking or walking – or just after a good workout. While my focus during lifting or sprinting is definitely on the action itself, other less intense activities allow me to wander mentally. (It’s like being able to view a star out of the corner of your eye but missing it when you’re searching for it head on.) The result, as research illuminates, is a surprisingly unconscious productivity.

If we’re talking about the post-workout window, it doesn’t matter what I did for exercise. My mind is again firing on all cylinders. Of course, there’s real physical sense to this phenomenon. Exercise literally and figuratively gets “the blood flowing” to our brains. It stimulates the processes that support new neuronal growth and connections as well as brain plasticity and better recall. It’s the kind of thing that makes you re-envision how you should spend that afternoon break.

The Confidence

There’s a certain self-assurance that comes from improving and pushing yourself physically. You know you’re taking responsibility for your health, but it’s something else, too. I think it’s owning your own power as a physical being. I’ve seen thousands of people – clients and readers (hello, success stories!) who said getting fit led to a major emotional and even social transformation in their lives. Likewise, it goes the other way. Over the years I’ve worked with a number of people who have overcome personal crises and come to me for advice saying “I want the outside to be as strong as I feel on the inside now.” Either way, the connection is the same. Physical resilience goes hand-in-hand with self-possession.

The Calm

I call this the “good exhaustion.” It’s in large part the sedative aspect of the runner’s high chemical cascade. Once we’re not moving anymore and there’s no “pain” to alleviate, we’re left for a while with the tail end of feel-good chemicals and can just bask in the contentment. For myself, I think the calm also comes from the sensation that my muscles have been used and stretched. I’ve lived my animal purpose for the day. A neighbor who walks her dog several times a day said once, “A good dog is a tired dog.” I’d add happy dog – and hominid to that.

The Energy

Sure, we’re riding the surge right after a workout, but I’m also thinking of the growing constancy of energy when exercise becomes a regular habit. Perhaps it’s the better sleep we enjoy or maybe the memory of feeling so energized during the workout itself. Or maybe it’s something more. University of Georgia researchers found exercise substantially reduced the fatigue symptoms of sedentary subjects all while it increased their energy (20% according to their estimates). It turns out it doesn’t take much. The low-level cardio folks actually experienced more of a reduction in fatigue (65%) than those who did more intense work (49%).

The Sexiness

Admit it: you feel better about your body after you work out. (Why do we ever feel guilty about this – like it’s a secret we have to keep under wraps?) It’s part of the energy surge but something “more.” Feeling good naked continually develops over time, with research suggesting our body image can change within mere weeks. However, I think it can begin to shift the moment we let it. Few things – other than sex itself, have the power to put us back in our bodies in quite the same way as exercise. All of the aforementioned benefits come together – the sense of energy, power, release, the high – and converge to make us feel more alive, impassioned and maybe even virile. You might end gym time sweaty and fatigued, but after a shower you might find yourself walking differently and “working” that workout. No?

Well, I’d say the short-term discomfort pales in comparison to exercise’s bigger benefits. (Am I wrong?) How does exercise make YOU feel? Any of the above? Something not on the list? Thanks for reading, everybody, and have a good end to your week.

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About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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46 thoughts on “How Exercise Makes Us Feel”

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    1. I’m not Mark, but if I may answer that…

      I think static holds (and stretching) is a great way to build strength and muscle. I’ve tried and experimented with different duration’s and intensities, I found them to be extremely beneficial for my training. I highly recommend trying them, but of course, with safety in mind. So keep a spotter nearby if you’re doing lock outs, and start with light weights (build up from there).

  1. Exercise certainly makes us feel better but unless it’s disguised as play like Mark suggests it’s really is a bugger to stay motivated. I guess it doesn’t quite have enough immediate gratification unlike doing the midnight mambo.

    1. It’s interesting because while it’s not exactly immediate gratification, it’s not really delayed gratification either. I usually feel really good right after a workout, or even after my first set, but dragging yourself to the weight room day after day can certainly still feel like a chore.

      1. I only hit the gym 2 days a week, but I lift heavy, target as many muscle groups as I can (fully body instead of splitting days), and go home tired but always feeling good. Keeping the frequency of gym visits down makes me EAGER to get to the gym, and it has not felt like a chore in the months I have been working this way. And I look better than I have in a long time, even though I have been primal for 2.5 years. I still try to walk a few days a week, too, but I never miss those 2 days a week hauling the weights.

        1. How did you figure out what to do your 2 days weightlifting at the gym? I had been doing CrossFit but eventually found it too stressful to keep going. I did learn that I LOVE weightlifting and thing I could do it on my own but don’t know how to get started.

        2. Laura, I am lucky enough to have a very knowledgeable husband who helped me develop a pretty good regimen. But I also go to a big box gym with some pretty good trainers there (I watch because if I ever want to shake things up, a couple sessions with a good trainer can jump start a lot). If you have a decent gym nearby, maybe visit and get some intro training sessions. Be sure you practically interview your trainer so you get what you want. More and more trainers are learning that we want functional movement, and I had a couple sessions with trainers I didn’t keep, but they managed to give me some useful movements.

          I make sure to always alternate between a leg workout and an upper body workout. I always do 3 sets of every exercise, and I rest as long as I need to between every set and workout. I don’t do much, but I can be in the gym for as long as 2 hours, most of it spent recovering so I am ready to kill the next set.

          For example (keeping in mind I’m 31 years old, 129 lbs, 5’3”, and around 20% body fat):
          I start off with as many pull ups, chin ups, neutral grip pull ups as I can.. Usually sets of 7, 7, then 5 or 6.
          I’ll then warm up with light squats, then do 3 sets of 95lb back squats.
          Then I will do 3 sets of a bench press, with a 20 lb dumbbell in each hand (no bars, really).
          Back to legs: 3 sets of weighted (25 lbs in each hand) walking lunges (about 10 steps)
          Shoulders: 3 sets of lateral raises with a 12lb weight in each hand
          Legs: step-back lunges (my name for them), 3sets/10reps/25lbs each hand
          Dips on the assist machine, taking off 25.5 lbs, 3 sets of 8
          Legs: step ups onto a bench with 25 lbs in each hand
          Bicep curls: 3 sets/8 reps/20 lbs in each hand
          Straight leg dead lifts with dumbbell: 3sets/10reps/30lbs in each hand
          Military press: 3/10/20 lbs in each hand
          Bent-over low rows: 3sets/10reps/35lbs
          1 minute of plank at the end of every work out. I stopped doing planks for 3 months — I don’t know why, I just forgot about them, and when I started doing them again: HOLY ABS.

          I alternate between:
          the bench press and butterflies (I super-set the butterflies with a reverse fly of 3sets/10reps/10lbs in each hand. Those are tough for me.
          the dips and kick backs for triceps.
          the military press with an “arnie” press.

          That was longer than I planned.

          I have been doing this for 3 months and I am not bored yet. I am always open to new movements, though, because variety IS the spice of life!

          I hope I was helpful!

        3. Nicole – Thank you SO MUCH for taking the time to write this out. You have given me some very helpful tools I can work with to try and start my own routine. This is such a great community!

    2. I would never say motivation is key to success. Motivation comes and goes, just like showering. And just like showering, it needs to be done constantly to stay clean, which is nearly impossible. It’s a matter of habit and discipline, at least in my experience as well as everyone else I’ve trained with.

      Exercise, whether it’s done in 10 minutes, or 2 hours, it’s something that requires everything from your body, including your mind. Once you conquer yourself in those 10 or so minutes, you’ll pretty much do everything else in life with full out confidence. That sounds like a fair deal to me!

      I’m no expert, but that’s my 2 cents for ya!

      1. Hey Laura,
        If you want ‘the book’ on one or two day a week workouts try ‘Body by Science’ by Dr Doug McGruff and John Little. Can’t recommend it enough.

  2. I used to be a runner but my knees had other plans and so I took up swimming (and had to stop using my stock comment, “I run because I hate to swim.”) It was an adjustment and sometimes I miss running, but I have been diligent about learning how to swim well. Now, when I go under and push off that wall for the first lap, every stress, every concern, everything just falls away behind me, and it’s just me and the quiet and the water. I love it, maybe even more than running.

    As a writer and a musician, living primarily in the realm of head and heart, exercise is a must for me, a way to get in a different space. Some of my best ideas come (and some of places I’m stuck get resolved) while I am walking the dog.

    In short, I can’t imagine life without some kind of movement every single day.

    1. I actually think swimming is much harder than walking or jogging. Depending how you do it, swimming requires all muscles to be activated, from head to toe. And plus, there’s no impact on the joints. So good for you for making the choice to stay active, in one way or another!

      I myself am a blogger, but also a fitness addict/freak. I can’t see myself blogging without the positive energy of exercise. I feel totally clean and fresh after a workout!

  3. I completely relate to all of the above! I don’t know what I’d be right now if I didn’t run.

  4. I LOVE the idea of taking a walk all alone and letting my mind wander.
    As a homeschool mom of two young children, I almost always have company on my walks, and lots of excited chatter. It’s sweet, yes, but doesn’t give me much “me” time when I’m exercising.
    But when I think about a few years from now, when the kids are old enough to stay home alone when I head out to exercise, I’m sure I’ll miss that chatter…

  5. I’m struggling with massive sleep debt and stress at the moment (Scottish Referendum – I’m English and live in Scotland). I’m very aware that my body is dealing with huge amount of stress hormones (my body fat has increased even though my eating is the same). I’m wary of providing more stress through exercise at the moment.

    Any thoughts Mark on what exercise would be suitable. I’ve stopped cycling because I’m concerned my attention and fatigue levels make it dangerous.

    1. Go for a walk! Get out in nature (which reduces physiological stress markers) and just enjoy the beautiful Scottish countryside and fresh air. Don’t worry about thinking of it as “exercise”… Just let your body move.

      Let your mind wander. Think about the history of Scotland and England. Think about this moment in time as just one moment in the vast history between these two nations. No matter what happens, the birds, rivers, trees will all just go on as they always have.

      1. I never really consider walking ‘exercise’ so many years ‘training’ at long distance triathlon I guess.

        Certainly being in nature helps.

        1. Kelda, Take up fly fishing in the Highlands. Trout and salmon do not worry about politics and politics will be the last thing on your mind when chasing your dinner on some of the most beautiful bodies of water in the world.

    2. Stationary bike.

      I love riding outside, but I have learned to skip bad weather, heavy traffic or days when I know I am not up to the concentration required. I also have a concept two rowing machine. I recommend that too.

      1. We use turbo trainers for sprint sessions, sprinting though is out at the mo for fatigue but I could just spin I suppose.

  6. (Whose attention perked up at the mention of cannabinoid?)

    Gahhhhh stop calling me out 😀

  7. As someone who has mild depression (that does not always feel so mild), I find that exercise if pretty much the best remedy. I am not sure how this fits in with this article but it certainly fits under “How Exercise Makes Us Feel” for me… a lot less depressed. I suppose it is a combination of all of the things Mark talked about above.

  8. I’ve lifted weights since I was 15, I’m now 50. I have studied intensity,frequency, amount of sets ,reps etc from training every day to body by science. I have no more muscle than the average joe who doesn’t train at all. Guess what?? I still keep training. That’s saying something for the power of habit:,detemination and lifting weights making you feel good. I also eat primally so hopefully my insides are thanking me. I wonder if the balance between testosterone and cortisol levels are individual, which makes some people unresponsive to exercice?

  9. I do resistance training at near 1 rep max once a week. After that I feel a little sick to my stomach for about 20 minutes. Then I feel pretty tired. The next day I still haven’t fully recovered, but I’m pretty active. The third day I have a little soreness, but moving mitigates it, so I’m on my feet a lot just doing stuff. The rest of the week is biking and hiking which is what I really like to do. It’s more fun now that I’m not in training. I miss the frequent long bike miles, but not the repetitive motion soreness.

  10. I get a subtle energy buzz, relaxation, calm and more energy, all at the same time after bodyweight workouts. I think doing more than 2 a week along with a sprint session would actually start to burn me out. After 4 years of this, I’m still not bored and kinda feel like Superman. The Primal Blueprint has amazing balance in my eyes. Just the right amount of everything.

  11. I lift weights four days a week, sprint two days a week. I despise every minute of it. People will come up with all kinds of reason why I don’t like it… such as “you’re doing it wrong.” ‘No, I am doing it right. I just don’t enjoy it. Period. Got it? Deal with it. I don’t like it.’ I walk at least eight hours a weekend but it’s part of me being self-employed. Can’t get around that. And I hit the racquetball around. That isn’t so bad. So while I like what exercise does for me I begrudge every damned second I spend doing it… and I also really don’t care for the gym atmosphere… horribly loud and too many who think the locker room is a nudist colony.

  12. I just go back into C2erg rowing. I switched my former slogging distance workouts to intense sprints with intermittent rests. I feel better from 5 500M/2min sprints with 1 minute rests than I did with my standard straight 7000 meter 30 minute piece. I find my distance vision is more sharp and clear after my erg sessions. I feel like doing the 15 minute workout every day instead of having to motivate myself to do the 30 minute slog every other day or two.

  13. Running is one of the few things in life that make me feel alive. The occasional injury does this as well, which is a little sadisitic but it is a feeling, and drives home that feeling of being alive and physically feeling something. Most of life is controlled sedation with limited physcial exertion or feeling. There is plenty of mental exertion and emotional feeling but not physical.

    I primary exercise with bodyweight and kettlebells, but do the occasion outdoor run because it makes me feel so alive!

  14. Exercise has many wonderful effects for me, but two of the biggies are alleviating anxiety & helping me sleep. I notice if I am truly sedentary for a day (luckily that’s rare) my sleep is much choppier, & sometimes I have quite serious insomnia.

    My favorite exercise, hoop dance, is sheer pleasure for me, though it can be much more physically demanding than it sounds! I also thoroughly enjoy yoga, gardening & walking. But I still have to screw up my courage to lift weights. I’ve done it for years by sheer willpower. I often wonder if it will *ever* seem fun…

  15. There’s a saying I’m reminded of here, “The best workout is the one you’ll do.” I can’t recall who gets the attribution, but it’s so very true.
    I’ve taken on a philosophy about exercise that allows me to not workout when needed & avoid the dreaded sense of obligation that robs the joy from the act of exercising. No longer do I worry about not getting in all the workouts I “should”. I do what feels good & leave it at that. Anything beyond would just be a mechanical, soul-draining chore. Allowing myself to be flexible about the when, where, & what lets me focus on the why & who parts of a workout. Why: because the workout feels good from start to finish. Who: because it’s about enjoying the company of whomever I workout with (even when it’s just me). Recognizing that exercise doesn’t just happen in formal sessions or adhere to strict routines frees me to substitute just about any physical activity for a “workout”, or to break up sets of exercises through out the day as my schedule allows.

  16. Love this post! I have been very happy (for a year or 2?) with the way movement/exercise has expanded in my life – and I also have aspirations. Only recently did I notice that my heart leaped up when I realized I had a workout the next day. I move a lot every day, and do some other stuff pretty often, but only go 2-3/week to the little workout station in our park (with husband & dog – they work out, too – the dog chews a ball in, you guessed it, downward-facing-dog pose). I love the outdoors part, the self-directed aspect, the fierce challenge, the mysterious camaraderie with highly varied people I’d otherwise not interact with – but I’m focused on the work. I’m 58 and closing in on my first pullup; I’ve incorporated ballet (my first and forever extreme sport – thought it was dead to me), and sometimes bring props like Rubberbanditz or yoga blocks. But the main thing is doing it – I actually enjoy the run up the monument steps, which is the nicest thing I’ve ever said about running! I plan to engage a trainer I admire to help me craft a plan to keep the momentum through the winter months better than last year…It turns out that a gym is not my natural habitat, though I can imagine taking advantage of one, from time to time.

    Also just took out my late mother’s walker – I used to play around with it and do pseudo-acrobatics (which she enjoyed, and slightly admonished me about, on safety grounds). I’ve raised the height and am – I have no idea what I’m doing. Let’s call it working on new choreography…. So a lot of your list really resonates for me. Thanks!

  17. Great article Mark, I recently just wrote an article on a similar topic about the mental benefits of exercise. I find the positive feelings I get from exercise are very addicting and hard to miss now.

  18. I am much more even keel and calm after workouts. For me, it really helps regulate my mood and that alone makes it worth it. I find exercise to be the easy part. Diet has always been my stumbling block (but I worked out…I can eat a cupcake!). Primal has really helped me focus on what is fuel and what will help me be better tomorrow.

  19. I think we sometimes…..many times…forget “gratitude”. I have a brother who has been in a wheelchair since birth and I often think of him when I’m making a workout seem like a chore in my mind. If he had the chance to run, he would not think twice.

    Be thankful for your legs, arms, fingers and toes!!! Love them and use them to keep you healthy and experiencing the journey!

    1. That’s so true! A few weeks ago I had an accident and lost a kidney. Now I know how it feels to be close to death, suffer real pain and be completely immobile. I couldn’t wait to start a fitness routine again and it is no more a chore for me like it used to, it is rather the absolute joy, that I can move again, lift heavy, move my limbs, sweat and be fit and strong. This experience changed my attitude towards exercise completely. I’m so grateful now that I have a functioning body again and I absolutely know, I will keep it fit until my last breath.

  20. Think I should mention dancing… I’ve recently been diagnosed with Fibromyalgia, after 3 years of the slow UK NHS trying to work out what was going on – mysterious injuries appearing without trauma, residual pain from those injuries long after they should have healed, neuropathic pain and muscle termors, fatigue and poor sleep quality. For a period the possible (scary) diagnosis was MS. I’ve had to give Taekwondo and Kung Fu (I shouldn’t really be kicked and punched with Fibro and not really fair if I do that to others).

    I replaced martial arts with Dancing (Modern Jive, Ballroom and Argie Tango), pilates and pilates-style gym workouts along with a primal diet. I’m now down to same weight I was at 21 (i’m now 51). It is defintely sexy – I get to hold pretty ladies half my age very close (to keep it fair my wife gets to hold some young men as well) and generally feel invigorated. For me, the exercise has to have a focal point, taking away the martial arts I could have asked myself why am I doing these workouts? And with Fibro you have to use it or you lose it – faster than 100% healthy people. Dancing provides the focal point, for over 50s it is ideal.

  21. This is probably the most complete list of things/reasons to justify getting the exercise in, no matter how little you like the feel of your own sweat. Swimming is often neglected in lists, but what better way to work out AND not feel the overheated gross sensation of bathing in your own sweat in a crowded gym than by swimming laps and getting the same feelings listed in this post?

  22. I am a bit flabbergasted at the sound of many of these posts…I think I have always been active, and found activity to be exhilarating, invigorating, and satisfying. Perhaps the reason for so many people to view exercise as onerous is that when many people think of “exercise”, they think of pointless, fruitless activities, like running on a treadmill, or manipulating a rowing machine. I think that a successful, lifelong ‘exercise’ program has to be enjoyable and productive. Playing a favorite sport, with a local group of people that becomes a community is a great thing. Or taking a bike ride to do the grocery shopping once a week. Or hand-spading your own garden. In short, I think that whenever possible, it is better to exercise as part of a real life, rather than pay to go to a gym, etc..

  23. I don’t understand one thing… Why people many people are averse to exercises. They junk food, live sedentary life, suffers from obesity.. But they don’t exercise. They are lazy at that time. In fact exercise and fat loss can help their whole body.

  24. I love the way exercising makes me feel. Of course its nice to look better and feel healthier but for me it is all about stress relief. I work in a hospital and I am the only recruiter for a 500 bed facility so I report to over 20 different people in 2 different states @ various levels. Its a position where theres never enough going on at any given point. Constant pressure to keep contract labor out and improve retention so stress is an everyday thing for me. Working out allows me to release that stress and stay at the top of my game. I work hard and play hard so exercise is a must for me.

    Always make exercise fun and individualize whatever program you are doing. i prefer to spend my time climbing trees, ropes, rock climbing, running on trails as opposed ot the gym. the gym was my safe haven but why spend money to run in place or use the bench press after some sweaty 300 lbs dude. The outdoors gives you the opportunity to be creative and also get that vital Vitmain D. Execercise will suck if you make it so but keep it interesting and always change things up.

    Why is when I need to read an article like this on this site it always pops up? Mark, you da man.

  25. Hi Mark,
    I Like your post. We build more muscle or more stamina. … That’s why we often feel so at ease and things are clear after exercising and eventually happy. Thanks for the post.