How do you feel after a good workout or going for a run? You might say your mood changes after being physically active. Maybe you feel happier and more relaxed. Sometimes working out offers you a rush of energy that can make you feel incredibly powerful and even invincible. In this post, we want to explore the reason behind this palpable shift and which exercises help the most when it comes to increasing happiness.

How activity affects our mood

The link between physical exercise and benefits to our health is well established in the scientific community. Data from several studies suggest that physical exercise improves both physical and mental health. We feel happier and less stressed when we walk, run, bike or participate in sports. What's interesting about this fact is that these gains in health last longer than you'd expect. According to researchers from the University of Vermont, the effects of a 20-minute exercise on your mood can last for as long as 12 hours. Furthermore, constant physical activity yields positive long-term effects on happiness.

Researchers from the University of Manchester presented a literature review offering an overview of the association between exercise and happiness. Their analysis looked at studies with over 500,000 participants and the results were clear: A strong link between physical activity and happiness was found – no matter what type of sport was practiced. Surprisingly, only 10 minutes of physical activity a day was needed to boost the mood of the research participants. Additionally, they found that more movement contributed to greater happiness. Commenting on these findings, the research director stated: “I think that we can safely say that people who exercise are probably going to be happier than people who don’t”.

What happens inside your body when you exercise

So why exactly do you feel happy when playing sports or doing other physical activities? It can seem as if there's a bit of magic happening in your brain. In reality, there are special biochemical processes that are responsible for these psychological effects.

One you might be familiar with is the release of endorphins – also known as "the happiness hormones" – when we exercise.  Endorphins are responsible for that euphoric feeling you get when you're really physically active, and it's where we get the term “runner’s high”. What you may not know is that endorphins are also opioids with analgesic effects, meaning that when they're released, they make you feel relief from pain.

But there's even more going on in your brain each time you exercise that's responsible for the happiness effect.  Every time you do intense physical activity, the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin are secreted. Both neurotransmitters regulate mood. So the more dopamine and serotonin that's flooded in the brain, the we experience joy. And because dopamine is plays an important role in the brain’s reward system, exercise creates positive feelings that make us come back for more.

In addition to elevating the chemicals in our brains that make us feel good, exercise also lowers the ones that make us feel bad or stressed. Cortisol, known as the "fight-or-flight" hormone is our body's natural response to danger and stressful situations. Yet too much cortisol can lead to a number of health problems like weight gain, heart disease and anxiety and depression. Studies show that not only is exercise effective for combating stress and lowering cortisol levels, but it's also very effective at reducing fatigue, improving concentration and enhancing overall cognitive function.

Given what we know about what goes on in the brain and in the body when we exercise, it makes sense that people are physically active are much happier and content with their life. Due to the effects on our levels of stress hormones and endorphins, exercise has shown to be a proven remedy for stress and even depression and anxiety. This means that if you do sports or exercise regularly, you're less likely to become depressed or anxious and are happier instead.

What kind of exercise is best for your happiness?

Now it’s your turn! Let’s have a look at how you can integrate movement in your daily life.

We know that people who exercise for 30 to 60 minutes, three to five days a week, benefit from improved mental health. But less time can also be effective in helping you to feel better. Research shows that even a short walk – preferably in nature – improves your mood. Movement also increases your quality of sleep, but it's important to remember that if you are physically active too late in the day, or into the evening, it can have the opposite effect.

Walking is just one way to get the health benefits of exercise. Whether it's a cardio workout, strength training, engaging in team sports or doing yoga, any sustained physical activity will work for boosting your mood. However, current research suggests that exercising outdoors in has the most effective impact on your self-esteem. This is primarily because we feel revitalized, more energetic and less tense when we're exposed to nature. Furthermore, music that is motivational or synchronized with your exercise is shown to have physical and psychological effects. Researchers found out that our mood rises by up to 15 % if we listen to motivational music during cardiovascular training.

Now that you know how being physically active is beneficial to your health, improves your mood and can lead to more happiness in your life... do you feel motivated to get out there and burn a few calories? If you do want to get active, keep in mind that you don't have to suddenly join a gym. Walking in nature or riding your bike is more than enough to start reaping the benefits. If exercising doesn't come easy to you, start slow and try out new sports or activities to find out what you enjoy. You'll get the most gains if you find something that you can do regularly. And soon you'll notice: Exercise makes you happy!  

In the Pocketcoach app you can learn other techniques to learn to develop real happiness.


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