Your morning sweat session is good for more than burning calories. Research shows that exercise boosts mood, alleviates depression, reduces anxiety and lowers stress — and the effects can be felt after just a few minutes of exercise.
J. Kip Matthews, PhD, a sports psychologist, believes changes in the brain are responsible for the mood-enhancing benefits of exercise. During exercise, he explains, our brains increase the amount of serotonin and norepinephrine, neurotransmitters responsible for sending messages to the nervous system.
“The more sedentary we become, the less efficient we are in dealing with stress.”
“Rather than seeing exercise as leading to an increase in serotonin and norepinephrine which, in turn, reduces depression and stress, studies suggest that exercise thwarts depression and anxiety by enhancing the body’s ability to respond to stress,” Matthews explains. “The more sedentary we become, the less efficient we are in dealing with stress.”
New research has found a different connection between exercise and mood. A recent study published in the journal PLOS One found that happier people lead more active lives.
As part of the research, 10,889 participants downloaded a free app and tracked their moods and activities. The data revealed that those who were happier were more active. Moreover, in the moments participants were the most active, their levels of happiness were highest.
Researcher Gillian Sandstrom, PhD, a lecturer at the University of Essex, notes that it’s unclear whether exercise is responsible for higher levels of happiness or whether happiness makes people exercise more. “We suspect that both are probably true,” she says. “Being happier probably causes people to be more active and being more active probably causes people to be happier, resulting in a positive feedback loop.”
Sandstrom adds, “We don’t know [why people are happier when they are more physically active] but maybe if you move around more, you have more opportunity for social interactions or more opportunity to encounter new experiences.”
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Another study, published in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine, followed 9,986 adults ages 50 and older for 11 years and found those who were happy and optimistic at the beginning of the study were more mobile during the next decade.
Researcher Julia Boehm, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology at Chapman University, suspects happier people tend to expect positive outcomes for their lives and are better equipped to pursue goals, including exercise, than unhappy people. “If you feel optimistic that exercising will help you achieve your goals, whether that is to be healthy, lose weight or feel stronger, then you may be more likely to do it,” she says.
While it’s unclear whether mood influences exercise or vice versa, the connection between physical activity and happiness is rock solid. Research on the phenomenon has led to a better understanding of what kinds of exercise have the biggest impact on mood. For starters, intense cardio is not the only way to get the so-called runner’s high.
“Early on, it was generally believed that an individual had to engage in aerobic exercise to achieve the mental health benefits from participation in physical activity,” Matthews says. “Over the years, as researchers became more sophisticated in their research designs, we found that there is not any specific type of exercise that has the biggest impact on mood.”
While the type of exercise doesn’t matter, intensity does. For the biggest benefit, moderate-to-high intensity exercise appears to be most likely to produce improvements in mood, according to Matthews.
“The take-away point is to find an activity you find to be fun and accessible and do it at a moderate-to-high intense level for a total of about 30 minutes a day for three days or more per week,” he says.