You’ve heard it from your doctor, personal trainer, and mother - exercise is good for you. You can’t argue with that. But have you ever stopped to wonder, how exactly does exercise help you?
As you’ll discover below, exercising has a myriad of benefits for both mind and body. One of these is increased happiness. But specific ways of exercising can make you much happier than others. How long should you exercise for a happiness boost? Are certain types of exercise better for happiness than others? And how can you enhance the happiness benefits of exercise?
These and many more questions will be answered in this article. If you’re ready to turn your exercise routine into the ultimate happiness booster, just keep on reading.
- What studies say about the effects of exercising on happiness
- 12 reasons why exercise makes you happy
- 1. It increases happiness hormones
- 2. It fights off depression and anxiety
- 3. It improves your health
- 4. It improves your sleep
- 5. It leads you to eat healthier
- 6. It keeps you from getting sick
- 7. It improves your memory
- 8. It gives you more energy
- 9. It boosts self-esteem
- 10. It reduces stress
- 11. It helps you breathe better
- 12. It improves your relationships
- How to get started with exercising
- What kind of exercise should you do to boost your mood?
- How long should you exercise to boost your mood?
- How often should you exercise to be happier?
- Where is the best place to exercise for happiness?
- 5 habits to enhance the happiness effects of exercise
- Wrapping up
What studies say about the effects of exercising on happiness
The idea that exercise increases happiness has been around for decades. But maybe you’d still like to hear the scientific proof behind it. Here is what studies say about the positive effects of exercise on happiness.
1. Exercise increases happiness across all ages
First, one study compared activity levels among young, middle-aged, and older adults. It found that people with moderate to high activity levels had significantly higher life satisfaction and happiness than those with lower levels.
This was true across all three age groups and in fact, life satisfaction and happiness increased along with age. So there’s really no such thing as being “too old to start”!
In addition, the brain also releases the mood-enhancing chemicals serotonin and dopamine. These stick around for several hours after you exercise.
2. Exercise causes happiness, not the other way around
This might raise the question, which came first? Are happier people simply more likely to exercise, or does exercise actually have an effect on happiness?
Another study found it’s the latter. For the first time ever, the research team found that a healthy lifestyle causes life satisfaction and happiness, not the other way around. So while the chicken and egg debate rages on, at least this conundrum has been settled.
3. Exercise boosts both short term and long-term happiness
It’s easy to get our wires crossed when talking about happiness. Do we mean a temporary spike in happiness that equates to cheering up? Or are we talking about long-lasting happiness, also known as “life satisfaction”?
In the case of exercise and happiness, it’s both. Researchers have shown that it takes just about five minutes after a moderate workout for your mood to improve. So if you’re having a crabby day, taking a quick break to hit the gym might be the best cure!
This means exercise can lift your mood almost immediately. If you go for a very heavy workout, the mood boost will take a bit longer to come - about 30 minutes.
But even more importantly, consistent exercise also makes you happier in the long term. Studies call this kind of happiness “life satisfaction”.
12 reasons why exercise makes you happy
It’s clear now that exercising makes you happier. But with such a broad statement, one wonders how exactly this effect works. What are the reasons why exercise makes you happy?
Let’s look at 12 science-backed ways that exercising increases happiness.
1. It increases happiness hormones
Firstly, exercise has a direct effect on happiness by increasing happiness hormones. In particular, exercising increases brain chemicals called endorphins. These endorphins interact with the receptors in your brain that reduce your perception of pain.
This is what leads to the “runner’s high” feeling after a workout. It creates a positive and energizing outlook on life.
2. It fights off depression and anxiety
This might seem obvious based on the evidence above, but there are also separate studies that prove exercise helps ward off depression and anxiety.
In fact, researchers examining studies on exercise and mental health determined that exercise could be a powerful intervention for clinical depression. Another study also found it is an effective treatment, especially for mild to moderate depression.
There are significant benefits for anxiety too. In particular, regular exercise can help people prone to anxiety become less likely to panic when they experience fight-or-flight sensations. After all, exercising produces many of the same physical reactions, such as heavy sweating and increased heart rate.
Researchers proved this in an experiment, explaining that:
Exercise in many ways is like exposure treatment. People learn to associate the symptoms with safety instead of danger.
3. It improves your health
How does exercise improve help? Let me count the ways.
Actually, that list would go on forever! So here are just a few of the dozens of health benefits of exercising:
- It strengthens your heart.
- It increases energy levels.
- It lowers blood pressure.
- It improves muscle tone and strength.
- It strengthens and builds bones.
- It helps reduce body fat.
4. It improves your sleep
Another health benefit of exercise is that it improves the quality of sleep. And anyone who’s woken up crabby in the morning can attest that sleep is very important for our happiness and wellbeing. But of course, there’s a study that proves that too.
5. It leads you to eat healthier
Most people who start working out are told they should start eating well too. But if both habits are too much for you to implement at once, then get started with exercise first and a healthy diet will naturally follow.
6. It keeps you from getting sick
Aside from having an excuse to stay in bed all day marathoning the latest Netflix show, being sick isn’t much fun at all. We’re generally much happier when we are healthy, and that’s another way that exercise contributes to happiness.
Doing regular exercise helps keep your immune system from weakening as you age, keeping you stronger and healthier for longer.
7. It improves your memory
Maintaining a good memory is very important to many people’s sense of well-being. And research shows this is another thing that regular exercise helps with. In particular, cardio exercise improves working memory, flexible thinking, and self-control among adults who are at risk of cognitive decline.
8. It gives you more energy
Imagine having enough energy to do all the tasks you need to do in a day. You’d probably enjoy even the mundane tasks, like cleaning your garage, much more.
Well, studies show you can have this benefit by being physically active. Even though exercising may feel tiring while you’re doing it, in the long term it increases energy and reduces fatigue.
9. It boosts self-esteem
Another benefit of exercise is that it increases self-esteem, but not in the way you might think. It might seem obvious that people who are fitter are also more confident in themselves.
But actually, a study found that exercising increased self-esteem even if participants didn’t experience any physical changes. Just the fact of exercising, without any real improvements in fitness, was enough to boost confidence in oneself. And greater confidence has been shown to increase both life satisfaction and happiness.
10. It reduces stress
Feeling stressed? Exercise can help with that too. A study found that exercise reduces stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol.
11. It helps you breathe better
It goes without saying that exercise requires you to breathe deeper and heavier. But did you know that breathing has a drastic effect on happiness too?
In particular, proper deep breathing (from the diaphragm) reduces stress levels and boosts positive emotions. A study even found that training on deep breathing had greater benefits than mindfulness and emotional intelligence training.
12. It improves your relationships
Last but certainly not least, exercising with other people can improve your relationships. Studies have shown that group exercise deepens bonds between people. And what’s more, having deeper bonds with the people you exercise with leads you to exercise better. Talk about a positive feedback loop!
Another study showed that exercising with others can increase long-term trust and friendliness.
And you probably don’t need science to tell you that strong social connections are absolutely essential to happiness and wellbeing.
How to get started with exercising
It can be hard to get started with a new habit. If you’re new to exercising, you might be wondering about the best way to get started to maximize your success.
Well, the best way to form any habit is to create a positive association with it. As mentioned above, moderate exercise can have an immediate boost to your mood. But a heavy workout will have a delayed effect of about 30 minutes.
For this reason, it’s best to start with moderate workouts rather than trying to go all out right from the beginning. You’ll get a near-instant mood boost after your workout, helping you to feel good about your workout and look forward to the next time you do one.
Professor of Psychology Michael Otto also suggests focusing on the mental benefits rather than physical changes. Unfortunately, it can take months before any physical results of your hard work in the gym are visible.
But the mood boost can provide an instant reward. That’s why Otto suggests tuning into your mental state after exercise in order to form a positive mindset and create a lasting habit.
What kind of exercise should you do to boost your mood?
With a world of ever-growing options, it can be hard to figure out what kind of exercise you should do.
If your goal is happiness, pretty much anything goes. Many studies found that the type of exercise didn’t seem to matter. Researchers recommend doing the exercise you like the most because then you’ll be able to sustain the habit over the long term.
Here are just some of the options you can choose from:
- Running or jogging.
- Practicing a team sport.
- Outdoor sports.
- Rock climbing and other physical hobbies.
- Cleaning (at a brisker pace).
But if you can’t make up your mind, here are two types of exercise that have particularly clear benefits for happiness.
1. Aerobic exercise
The vast majority of studies on exercise and happiness look at aerobic exercise, so it’s clear that there is a strong link there. This includes running, biking, or swimming.
If you get bored with repetitive motion and you’d like to apply your creativity, give dancing a go. It’s been shown as an excellent way to relieve stress. Actually, it may have more benefits than any other form of exercise!
How long should you exercise to boost your mood?
There are dozens of studies on exercising and happiness, providing a wide range of answers to this question.
Researchers seem to be in agreement that any amount of exercise is better than none, and more is better.
Some studies showed that people were happier with even very small amounts of exercise:
- Once or twice per week.
- 10 minutes per day.
How often should you exercise to be happier?
We’ve already shown that exercise has both immediate and lasting benefits for happiness.
So if happiness is your goal, you can combine these short and long-term effects for the best boost.
You can use exercise as a quick mood fix anytime you feel down. As Professor of Psychology Michael Otto explains:
Many people skip the workout at the very time it has the greatest payoff. That prevents you from noticing just how much better you feel when you exercise. Failing to exercise when you feel bad is like explicitly not taking an aspirin when your head hurts. That's the time you get the payoff.
So you can do a quick 20-minute workout anytime your day seems to be heading south.
But to get the long-term benefits, you’ll naturally need to make workouts a regular thing. People who exercise for at least 30 minutes at least 4 days per week (the standard American and European recommendation for good health) feel significantly happier overall than those who do not meet the guidelines.
And that seems to be the happy middle, at least as far as happiness goes. A review found that happiness levels were the same for people who exercised between 2.5 and 5 hours per week versus those who went over 5 hours.
So this recommendation is a pretty good one to stick to. This will help ensure a higher baseline of happiness so that you don’t sink down into a depression after the immediate effects wear off.
Where is the best place to exercise for happiness?
As with the questions above, exercising anywhere you can is much better than doing it, well, nowhere.
But there’s one place that can send your happiness levels through the roof. And that’s our beautiful great outdoors.
Studies show that walking in nature for 1.5 hours is very effective at dispelling negative thoughts. In fact, you don’t even need to do exercise. Just immersing yourself in nature is enough.
The Japanese have even made a practice called “forest bathing” around this. It’s essentially spending time or walking in a forest. This has been proven to both decrease depression and increase liveliness.
But even if you don’t have access to a forest or a park, there’s one important part of nature you can probably find: the sun.
Just 10-15 minutes of exposure to sunlight increases two happiness hormones:
But make sure not to go overboard, as getting sunburned can be very dangerous to health. If you’re in direct sunlight at peak hours or plan to do a longer workout, apply sunscreen before you start.
5 habits to enhance the happiness effects of exercise
You’re all set to start exercising and become happier than ever before. But before you pack your gym bag, here are 6 powerful habits to help ensure the greatest success.
1. Set attainable goals
If you’ve ever tried to drive somewhere without knowing the destination, you’ll know why having a goal is so important. This applies to hitting the gym as well.
If you want to exercise, for any reason, you should have a goal for how you want to do it. This can include:
- What kind of exercise you want to do.
- Where you will do it.
- How long you’ll do it.
- How often you’ll do it.
- What results you’re hoping to achieve.
Otherwise, you’ll have no idea if you’re moving towards what you want or not.
But setting goals has another added benefit to happiness. A four-year study found that setting attainable goals - even if you didn’t actually achieve them - greatly increased mental and emotional wellbeing. This effect comes from having a higher sense of control over your life.
2. Drink lots of water
Drinking water is clearly necessary to sustain physical exercise. But it also has a direct effect on your happiness.
If you struggle to drink the recommended 2 liters of water per day, you could try using a bottle with time markers. These show how much you should drink each hour in order to drink the recommended minimum by the end of the day.
3. Eat healthy and happy foods
Exercise and healthy eating go hand in hand like rhythm and blues.
Research found that eating fruits and vegetables regularly was a key part of a happy lifestyle, along with exercise. This makes sense, as it’s hard to have the energy to do a good workout if you’re feeding your body junk food all the time.
If you’d like to get more serious about exercising, you will also need to make sure you eat enough protein to fuel muscle growth and recovery.
There are also many protein-high foods that have particular mood-enhancing effects:
- Foods high in tyrosine and phenylalanine: turkey, beef, eggs, dairy, almonds, soy, and legumes (increase dopamine).
- Foods high in tryptophan: milk, canned tuna, turkey and chicken, oats, cheese, nuts, and seeds (increase serotonin when eaten with carbohydrates).
- Foods containing probiotics: yogurt, kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut (increase dopamine).
If you’re struggling with healthy eating, don’t stress about it and just focus on exercising for now. As mentioned earlier, making a habit of exercise will naturally lead you to make healthier food choices over time.
4. Practice good posture
“Sit up straight!” We’ve all heard these words from a parent, teacher, or personal trainer.
If you haven’t been heeding this advice so far, here’s a good reason to start. Keeping good posture can make your memories of an experience significantly happier. This is another way you can make a positive association with working out, so make sure you pay attention to how you hold your body.
But don’t throw this out of your mind as soon as the workout is over. Sitting upright also has several mental health benefits, including greater confidence and enthusiasm. You can continue to use this practice as you sit back down to work and go about the rest of your day.
5. Cultivate self-control
Let’s face it, we’re all busy. Between work and family commitments, fitting a workout into your day can feel akin to a game of Tetris.
That’s why researchers point to a crucial factor in the happiness equation: self-control.
This is the ability to put off dinner, Netflix, or meeting friends in order to stick to your workout habits. It has a major influence on your lifestyle choices, and ultimately on your life satisfaction.
That’s why we should all see healthy choices like regular exercise as “money in the bank” for our own happiness. Making the right decisions is like investing in a better future and getting high interest in return.
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Now you have the ultimate guide on how to exercise for the greatest benefits to both health and happiness. You can keep your motivation high, knowing 12 science-backed ways that you’re boosting your mood with your workout. You’ll be able to choose the what, where, when, who, and how to implement these effects. And, you’re equipped with 5 powerful tips to enhance all the benefits. All that’s left for you to do now is grab a towel and start sweating!