Exercise and Happiness: How Activity Affects Our Mental Health

Did you know that when you start to exercise regularly, you not only begin to notice changes to your physique but also significant improvements to your health that extend beyond your physical appearance? Exercise goes a long way to improve your general mood, the quality of your sleep as well as support your immune system.

How does exercise make you happy?

When it comes to exercise and depression, studies show that maintaining a regular exercise routine can supplement proper counseling or therapy in the treatment of mild to moderate depression and, in some cases, is as effective as antidepressant medication.

Now for the science. So what happens to our brains when we exercise? Working out leads to changes in your brain, such as increased blood flow and the creation of new neural pathways. Hormones such as endorphins, serotonin, dopamine, and testosterone are also released in response to increased physical activity.

  • Endorphins give you that post-exercise high-as-a-kite feeling. As your body’s natural painkillers, they reduce discomfort, enhance pleasure and improve self-esteem.
  • Serotonin controls your appetite, helps you sleep sounder, and regulates your mood. These factors all go hand-in-hand to make us feel happier, calmer, and more stable.
  • Dopamine is that pleasurable habit-forming hormone that keeps you coming back for more. It signals the reward and pleasure centers in our brain’s, which help motivate us to take action and work towards things that make us feel good.
  • Testosterone, crucial for both men and women, is important for your metabolism, muscle growth and libido. Low levels can lead to depression and obesity. Regular exercise, especially endurance/resistance training, raises testosterone levels.

Exercise and stress reduction

Chronic stress is a major factor in many modern-day mental ailments such as depression and anxiety. The pressure to meet life’s demands can result in the overactivation of “fight or flight” hormones, cortisol and adrenaline. The overproduction of these hormones over an extended period is the root of most stress-related illness. So what has this got to do with regular exercise you may ask? Well, regular exercise releases the previously listed “happy” hormones and counterbalances the overproduction of cortisol and adrenaline.

Now take a moment and think about how you feel when you’re stressed. Do you notice a lot of muscle tension? Do you experience back pain, an upset stomach, or headaches? In addition to hormonal balance, exercise helps pump more blood and oxygen through your body, relieving tense muscles. Once your body relaxes, your mind follows suit.

 

exercise happiness stress

State of play

Treat exercise as “play time” and give your brain a needed break from negative thoughts or rumination. Working out requires you to be fully present in the here and now, so you won’t have to time to ponder the more dismal goings on in your life. If you reframe the repetitive movements of exercise as a form of moving meditation, you’ll be able to foster a sense of calm and clarity.

Rev up your metabolism

Tip:
Aerobic exercise (running, Zumba, HIIT, and other cardio) will help you burn calories. While strength training will make your body a more efficient calorie-burning machine, even when you're at rest.

Want to reactivate your metabolism and have it humming like a well-oiled engine? Then maintain a regular workout routine and support your body in converting fuel (food) into energy more efficiently. Muscle cells burn more energy than fat cells, so working out and building more lean body mass amp up your metabolism.

Exercise for a good night’s sleep

Ask any new parent, a lack of sleep has a profound effect on mood, concentration and can even contribute to difficulty losing weight. If you find falling or staying asleep challenging and counting sheep just isn’t cutting it, then you may want to consider upping your physical activity. Regular exercise has been shown to improve quality of sleep. Even short bursts of exercise in the morning or afternoon can help regulate your sleep patterns. Keep in mind workouts in the evening may energize you too much before bedtime. Instead try more relaxing exercises such as yoga or gentle stretching.

Boost your immune system

As if that wasn’t enough, not only does exercise strengthen your mental resilience and neutralize the release of stress hormones, but resulting lower stress levels can improve your immunity. Exercise boosts your immune system by circulating white blood cells faster throughout your system and fighting disease quicker.