How Training Makes You Happier

By: Alison Levy

If you ask the Spartan Team to tell you the first word that comes to mind when you say “happiness,” you will get answers ranging from puppies to freshly blended fruit juice to smiles to burpees (yes, burpees)—and the list goes on. Maybe it’s not surprising that “burpees” made the cut. Actually, that’s the answer that got me thinking the most. Don’t we use burpees as a penalty? Can burpees really make anyone happier?

Countless articles will tell you that exercise can make you fitter, healthier and even smarter, but can burpees—or, more broadly, training for an obstacle race—also make you happier? Believe it or not, the research says yes. Here are four ways that Spartan training can boost your happiness.

1. Through the power of neurochemicals.

That’s right. It’s science. Exercise boosts your body’s ability to make certain chemicals that have been shown to enhance mood and decrease negative feelings like depression and anxiety. Christopher Bergland, author of The Athlete’s Way: Sweat and the Biology of Bliss, describes seven happiness-inducing chemicals in his article, The Neurochemicals of Happiness. If you read closely, you will notice that each of those chemicals is closely related to training—from the physical impact of moving to the psychological effects of setting and achieving goals.

One of these well-known neurochemicals is dopamine, the chemical that reinforces reward-seeking behaviors. In Christopher Bergland’s words, “If you want to get a hit of dopamine, set a goal and achieve it.” If Bergland is right, then Spartans must be swimming in dopamine every day. In training for a Spartan Race, athletes set and achieve short-term goals on a daily—even hourly—basis. When they finally reach the finish line, dopamine is activated again, telling their brains that crossing that finish line was the most amazing thing in the world, and they need to do it again.

Besides dopamine, training releases endorphins and adrenaline. Once your brain learns to associate endorphins with the feeling of a “runner’s high,” endorphins act like a natural, internally-produced form of morphine. As a result, the production of endorphins increases your pain tolerance. In the case of adrenaline, also known as the the fight-or-flight hormone, exercise can help both increase its production and release built-up tension from excess adrenaline caused by chronic high stress. In other words, doing your burpees can help relieve and reduce stress as well as release chemicals that improve your mental and physical health.

2. By improving your sense of self-efficacy.

Not only will exercise make you stronger and more physically fit, but it will also boost the feeling that you can accomplish anything you set your mind to, on and off the course. The physical exertion of exercise causes a spike in serotonin, a chemical that is associated with a heightened sense of confidence in the face of challenging tasks.

According to James Maddux, Ph.D., who teaches positive psychology at George Mason University, self-efficacy “is one of the most important ingredients—perhaps the most important ingredient—in the recipe for success” (Maddux, 2005). Because of the relationship between exercise and serotonin, training is a great way to cultivate a belief that you can set and accomplish your goals. As you train more and more and overcome greater and greater obstacles, your sense of self-efficacy will rise. As Maddux says, “To have a resilient sense of self-efficacy requires experience in overcoming obstacles through effort and perseverance.”

What better way to build this than by training for and conquering a Spartan Race?

3. With eco-therapy.

Spartan Races and Spartan Training are, in part, about getting back to basics—escaping the urban “jungle” for green spaces and mud pits.

From an easy walk to an intense hike, getting outdoors and being in nature for even a short amount of time has been proven to enhance mood and wellbeing. According to a long list of scientific articles condensed into an infographic, “Exercising in nature can improve your mental health in as little as 5 minutes.” Eco-therapy, or getting in touch with nature, is a fast-growing field of research focused on a central question: how and why does being in nature boost mood? While we don’t know the reason why walking in nature is so beneficial, one thing is certain—if you need a boost in mood, you should take your training outside.

4. By forging social bonds.

They say that friends who sweat together stay together—and the Spartan Team thinks this is 100% true. Not only are training partners the ones who push you to work harder or who get you through a tough workout, but training with a group has also been shown to have social benefits that lead to happiness—long after your daily training session is over.

The relationship between social connection and exercise is cyclical, and it can have a profound effect on happiness. According to the Kohler effect, exercising with others increases motivation and also pushes athletes to work and train harder. At the same time, doing so with friends strengthens your connections to one another. This goes back and forth, and your workout partners end up becoming strong friends (literally). This leads to increased feelings of happiness, similar to what psychology professor Barbara Fredrickson describes as a positive spiral. In addition, training in a group will keep you accountable to your training goals, so you are more likely to stick with your training plan and reap the physical benefits of exercise long-term.

The link between body and mind is so strong that exercise can make you happy long after your training session is over. In fact, many studies give evidence that exercise can be used to help treat and prevent depression, as well as other mental health issues.

Whether you are training to get a record time in your next race or to cross the finish line for the first time, training can bring you happiness and increase your everyday wellbeing—both physically and mentally.

What are you waiting for? Get started with the Spartan Elements training plan, or find an SGX coach near you.

References

Maddux, J.E. (2005). Self-efficacy: The power of believing you can. In C.R Snyder & S.J. Lopez, (Eds.), Handbook of positive psychology. New York: Oxford University Press.