The Science Behind Happiness and Exercise


Most of us are already familiar with the fact that exercising regularly can have benefits such as maintaining a healthy weight and improving cardiovascular health. As if we need yet another reason to exercise, there is also the suggestion that physical activity may also improve one’s mood and increase feelings of happiness. Here are several ways exercising can positively affect our emotions.


Exercise Can Lower Instances of Depression

In 2014, the European Archives of Psychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience [1] released a study focusing on a group of individuals being treated for Major Depressive Disorder (MDD), a medical condition that includes symptoms such as feelings of hopelessness, insomnia, fatigue, and suicidal thoughts. [2] They found that exercising three times a week may help improve the patients’ moods. However, a regular exercise program may be a more effective way of helping a patient overcome depression, according to an article by Harvard Health Publications. Though antidepressants cause the swiftest response in helping depression, studies show that the effects of exercise lasts longer than antidepressants, and that patients who regularly exercised were less likely to relapse. [3]


Exercise Can Help Manage Stress

The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness [4] released a study in 2001 that demonstrated that aerobic exercise may decrease tension, fatigue, and anger. Another study in 2004 by Behaviour Research and Therapy found that both high and low intensity aerobic exercise may reduce anxiety sensitivity. [5] Besides reducing the symptoms of stress, exercise in general can also help boost one’s self confidence as well as improve one’s sleep -- all of which can ease stress levels. On a more personal level, exercise may distract people from the daily worries of life, boosting their energy and helping them feel that they are more in control over their lives. [6]


Exercise Can Release “Happy” Brain Chemicals

According to a 2004 article by Psychiatria Polska, [7] the positive effects of exercise on an individual’s mood may be because of how exercise causes the brain to release endorphins and monoamines.

  • Endorphins are neurotransmitters, or brain chemicals, released into the body after exercising. They primarily combat feelings of pain and stress. They also have other positive effects, such as improving the immune system, modulating the appetite, and creating a feeling of euphoria. [8]

  • Monoamines, on the other hand, are also neurotransmitters whose functions are less clear. [9] However, an article published by Brain Sciences in 2013 suggests that monoamines may play a role in helping the brain from recovering from mental disorders. It can also protect the brain against stress and relieves anxiety, as well as improve one’s memory and ability to learn. [10]


Exercise Can Be Psychologically Beneficial

For instance, Preventative Medicine published a study in 2000 that claimed exercise not only enhanced one’s psychological well being, but that it also helps ease feelings of anger and cynical distrust while helping participants maintain a stronger feeling of social integration. [11] Moreover, the American Psychological Association has been encouraging exercise as a way of combating depression and anxiety. It is believed that through exercise, people can have a sense of accomplishment that will help them return to meaningful activity. [12] Focusing on physical activity can also help them forget about the negative aspects of life by focusing on the movements required for physical activity, putting the participant in a meditative state. [6]


Bottom Line

Overall, while exercise can have long term health effects on the body, its mood boosting effects are almost instantaneous, as it occurs while you are working out. Next time you need an inceptive to hit the gym, don’t forget that exercise is not just good for your physiological health, but for your mental health as well!

References ▾

  1. “The effects of exercise on oxidative stress (TBARS) and BDNF in severely depressed inpatient.” Eur Arch Psychiatry Clin Neurosci. (2014).
  2. “Major Depressive Disorder.” (2011).
  3. “Exercise and Depression.” (2014).
  4. “The effects of exercise on mood changes: the moderating effect of depressed mood.” J Sports Med Physical Fitness. (2001).
  5. “Effects of aerobic exercise on anxiety sensitivity.” Behav Res Ther. (2004).
  6. “Exercise and stress: Get moving to manage stress.” (2014).
  7. “Effects of exercise on anxiety, depression and mood.” Psychiatr Pols. (2004).
  8. “Endorphins: Natural Pain and Stress Fighters.” (2014).
  9. “Function and pharmacology of monoamine neurotransmitters.” (2014).
  10. “Exercise Benefits Brain Function: The Monoamine Connection.” Brain Sci. (2013).
  11. “Physical exercise and psychological well-being: a population study in Finland..” Prev Med. (2000).
  12. “The Exercise Effect.” (2014).

Spring 2014 | Vol. 14 | Issue 3

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