Many people like to start their day with a morning run, or a workout at the gym; they say it gives them a boost in the morning that provides the energy to tackle daily obstacles. Why is it that we are so motivated after exercising, even though it depletes our energy? The answer could be because during exercise our bodies release cortisol.* When discussing the hormone “cortisol” many people instantly think of stress, and rightfully so, since cortisol is the hormone released in reaction to stressful situations as a coping method. However, cortisol is not necessarily negative, as many people believe it to be. Cortisol is released through the adrenal gland, and yes, increases stress levels, but it also helps the body recover after intense exercise. The benefits of physical activity have been published again and again for years, but the perception of how exercise enhances motivation through cortisol levels is rather new in areas of psychological research.
Scientifically collected data has illustrated that there is a direct relationship between the increase of exercise intensity and cortisol levels. The heightened levels of cortisol last for about 20-30 minutes after intense exercise has ceased (Budde et al., 2008). In a similar study, it was demonstrated that those with increased cortisol levels display an increase in reward-seeking behavior, simply described as motivation. Consistent high cortisol levels can lead to anxiety disorders and susceptibility to addiction, but in a timed interval increase of cortisol, (in this experiment the interval was 20-30 minutes) it creates a boost in attentiveness, a desire to perform, and motivation. These inflated cortisol levels affect cognitive processes like working memory, retrieval, and attention, which can enhance reward-driven and approach-motivated behavior (Putman et al., 2010). During the time period that these behaviors are active, individuals are more likely to engage in activities that require motivation and complete them with better accuracy.
According to the research presented above, it seems logical that after a semi-intense workout, individuals will be better motivated to complete tasks which they have been putting off or previously have not felt inclined to complete. Personally, after a workout I am more compelled to complete assignments that were previously daunting to me, and I try to use exercise as a motivator to get work done. Although many results discussed in this type of research relates to the problems created through inflated levels of cortisol after long periods of time, a brief increase in cortisol levels does lead to heightened motivation after semi-intense exercise. To test the relationship between exercise and motivation, try it for yourself; after a run, sit down to an assignment or task and measure how much work you complete and compare the results to work you have done (or attempted to do) without the benefits of a workout prior to the task.
Budde, H., Machado, S., Ribeiro, P., & Wegner, M. (2015). The cortisol response to exercise in young adults. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 9(13).
Putman, P., Antypa, N., Crysovergi, P., & Van der Does, W. (2009). Exogenous cortisol acutely influences motivated decision making in healthy young men. Psychopharmacology, 208(2),257-263.
Edited by: Kathleen