Can Exercise Fight Depression and Make You Happier?

Jodi Helmer
by Jodi Helmer
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Can Exercise Fight Depression and Make You Happier?

Need a mood boost? Break a sweat. The latest research confirms what exercisers know to be true: There is a strong connection between regular workouts and happiness.

Research published in the Journal of Happiness Studies reviewed 23 studies conducted between 1980–2018 to assess connections between exercise and happiness. The results showed that those who exercised for 150–300 minutes each week (less than 45 minutes every day) experienced dramatic improvements in mood; the exercisers that the researchers classified as “very active” were up to 52% happier than those who were less active; even the “sufficiently active” exercisers experienced 30% more happiness than their more sedentary peers.

While the research didn’t explore the reasons for the relationship between exercise and happiness, co-author Weiyun Chen, associate professor at the University of Michigan, points to previous findings that indicate exercise increases blood flow and oxygen to the brain, triggering the release of “feel good” hormones called endorphins.

“When you make exercise part of your life, you will find not only exercise is beneficial to maintaining your positive thoughts and mood but also is an effective way to [get] off screens and off the couch during the day,” Chen says.

Chen admits that it’s unclear whether happier people exercise more or more exercise leads to greater happiness but notes there is a strong “reciprocal relationship” at work.

WHAT’S THE MOST EFFECTIVE EXERCISE AND DURATION?

No particular type of exercise was most effective for boosting happiness. The research showed aerobic, strength training, stretching and balancing exercises all had similar positive impacts on mood. The exercise/happiness connection was especially pronounced among those who were overweight.

If the idea of logging 150-plus minutes of exercise per week seems overwhelming, take heed: The research showed that as few as 10 minutes of exercise could have a significant impact on happiness.

Additional studies, including a paper published in The American Journal of Psychiatry, reported similar findings. The 2017 study followed more than 30,000 American adults and found that those who were sedentary were 44% more likely to be diagnosed with depression than regular exercisers — and it only took as little as one hour of exercise per week to have a protective effect. Researchers cited the physical and social benefits of exercise as the main reasons for the findings.

WHY IT’S NOT SO EASY AS EXERCISE

Dawn Roberts PhD, associate professor of psychology at Bradley University, notes that exercise is a safe, effective and inexpensive complement to medication or psychotherapy treatments and, for mild to moderate depression, can be a standalone treatment. She cautions, “It’s best to be seen by a mental health professional if you’re interested in it as a sole treatment [so they can] monitor if the exercise is working and modify or add additional treatment if you’re not improving.”

Despite the positive connection between exercise and happiness, a paper presented at the Anxiety and Depression Association of America Conference 2018 found that psychiatrists only discussed exercise as a possible treatment with about 20% of patients diagnosed with depression. Roberts, who co-authored the paper, believes healthcare professionals may shy away from recommending exercise as a treatment for depression for fear that asking a patient to exercise might be too taxing given their current mental state.

We avoid recommending tasks to a patient that she or he will likely fail.  We don’t want to diminish self-efficacy and feelings of competence even more than may already be the case, given their depression,” she explains.Because it’s so difficult once one is in the depths of a depressive episode to muster up energy and motivation to exercise, I recommend that persons who have experienced depression previously, or who are at higher risk of depression, to make exercise a habit.  Some of the strongest research evidence supports its effectiveness in preventing future depressions.”

About the Author

Jodi Helmer
Jodi Helmer

Jodi Helmer writes about health and wellness for publications like WebMD, AARP, Shape, Woman’s Day, Arthritis Today and Costco Connection among others. She often comes up with the best story ideas while hiking with her rescue dogs. You can read Jodi’s work or follow her on Twitter @helmerjodi.

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