We all know exercise can make you stronger, leaner and physically healthier. But what about your mental health? Can exercise make you feel happier?
I can tell you from my own personal experience that exercise made a big difference for me. Eleven years ago I went from a sedentary lifestyle to an active one. At first, my primary motivation in beginning a daily exercise program was to feel less stiff and sore and to lose weight. And it definitely helped me with that.
But what I wasn’t expecting — and what was perhaps the biggest surprise benefit for me — emotionally, I felt much better when I worked out regularly. In fact, that was a big reason why I decided to keep going with my fitness efforts early on.
I had never before realized that we have a powerful mind-body connection. As I got stronger physically, I became a happier person and better able to handle stress. This, in turn, made me a better spouse, parent and working professional.
Exercise has made a huge difference in my quality of life, and as a fitness professional, I see this happen for countless others, too. That’s why I end the exercise classes I teach by saying, “You just did something great for your body, mind, and spirit. Good for you!”
The old me would cope with stress or the blues by eating a bag of potato chips…then I’d feel even worse afterward. This wasn’t a good method for dealing with my emotions, but that’s what I did for many years. Often I didn’t even realize that’s what was happening.
Now if I need to blow off some stress I’ll go for a bike ride or take a walk outdoors instead. Not only is that a healthier way to feel better, it’s also far more effective. Science agrees! Here are some of the proven mood-boosting benefits of exercise:
Improves your brain chemistry to lift your mood
Exercise causes changes in the brain chemicals that affect mood. Exercise increases blood flow and oxygen to the brain, triggering the release of endorphins and serotonin, the “feel good” hormones.
It busts stress
According to the American Psychological Association, exercise “fuels the brain’s stress buffers” and may improve mental health by helping the brain cope better with stress. In a study researchers at Karolinska Institute in Stockholm found that exercise may induce changes in skeletal muscle that can purge the blood of a substance that accumulates during stress and can be harmful to the brain. In other words, the benefits to your brain may begin in your muscles!
It’s a natural antidepressant
One study found that exercise may be considered an alternative to antidepressants for the treatment of depression in older adults. “Although antidepressants may facilitate a more rapid initial therapeutic response than exercise,” said the researchers, “after 16 weeks of treatment exercise was equally effective in reducing depression among patients with MDD [major depressive disorder].” Another study found that adults taking medication for MDD experienced “significant improvements,” including a number going into remission, after participating in an aerobic exercise program for 12 weeks. Another study concluded that “Physical exercise is an effective intervention for depression. It also could be a viable adjunct treatment in combination with antidepressants.”
It’s important to note that the research doesn’t suggest that people shouldn’t take prescribed medication or that substituting exercise will work for all people. Ask your doctor if exercise would be helpful to add to your treatment plan.
Outdoor exercise is especially beneficial
Go outside for a walk, hike or bike ride. Study findings on “green exercise” — physical activity that takes place outdoors in a natural environment — show that it may deliver physical and mental rewards that go beyond the benefits of exercising indoors, and it may have positive effects on mood, vitality, and well-being (IDEA Fitness Journal, March 2018). Plus, being active outdoors can help your body make vitamin D from the sun, which can help fight seasonal affective disorder (SAD), also known as winter depression.
How much exercise does it take to feel a difference in your mood?
Not as much as you might think! In a study published in the Journal of Happiness Studies, researchers found that “all observational studies reported positive associations between physical activity and happiness. As little as 10-minutes physical activity per week or 1 day of doing exercise per week might result in increased levels of happiness.”
In my case, I experience the most physical and emotional benefit by getting 30-60 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise a day. This coincides with the amount that the government’s Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans advise for adult health.
How to get started
When it comes to fitness, there isn’t one form of exercise that is inherently superior — it’s all good. Choose something that appeals to you, and that makes you feel positive and uplifted. Set aside time each day to exercise. Even if you only do a few minutes a day, that’s better than nothing and will benefit you.
For ideas to help you get going, see our post on easy ways to get started with exercise.
Seek help if you need it
Just because you exercise doesn’t mean you won’t ever become depressed, but research shows that it may reduce the chances that you will, and/or may augment treatment for depression.
Exercise does not alleviate depression for everyone and is not a substitute for needed medical care. If you think you may be struggling with depression or anxiety, it’s best to consult a mental health professional. To locate behavioral health service providers near you, contact your primary care provider and/or use our Find A Doctor tool.
For tips on succeeding with your exercise program, grab a copy of my free eBook, “6 Secrets to Winning at Exercise (Even if You’ve Always Failed!)