Exercise and happiness: A new study surprised me.

I was very surprised to read in the New York Times that recent research, studying twins, indicated that, despite studies that seemed to suggest that exercise was almost as effective in relieving depression as anti-depressants, in fact, the “association of exercise with reduced anxious and depressive symptoms could be explained genetically: people disinclined to exercise also tend to be depressed. One does not cause the other.”

The study was looking at the effect of exercise on symptoms of depression and anxiety. I wonder if exercise might help non-depressed or anxious people with keep more positive moods. In other words, what is the effect of exercise on the moods of non-depressed/anxious people?

It sure seems to me that exercise has a big effect on my mood, and I’ve heard that from many other people, as well.

When I’m feeling blue, exercise helps a lot. Perhaps that’s because when I’m exercising, I’m distracted and not ruminating on anything that might be upsetting me. Maybe it’s because exercise boosts energy, and feeling energetic helps people feel cheerier. Maybe it’s because I know that exercising will help keep me healthy, so I feel good about doing something that’s good for me. Maybe it’s because just the sheer ticking-an-item-off-the-to-do-list is satisfying. Or maybe it’s just that I expect that exercise will make me feel better, and so it does.

The relationship between exercise and happiness is fascinating, so I’m eager to see what studies follow.

I was thrilled to see that along with Three Beautiful Things, I inspired someone to take on her own happiness project — check it out at Gleeful.

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  • Interesting post. I have been getting up at 4am basically everyday for almost 10 years in order to go to the gym to get my workout in before work. For me, the days that I don’t work out…I feel sluggish, slow and not very happy. When I look at why I continue to get up each day, I believe that (for me) the psychological benefits of exercise outweigh the physical benefits.

  • There have been many studies over the years to show that exercise increases the release of endorphins (hormones that make us feel good). This hormone release would have a positive effect on the mental/emotional state of all people whether depressed or not. Bottom line: if we want to be happy – we must keep moving!!
    Gretchen, keep up the good work – you are making a positive impact on a lot of lives!!

  • I just love my early morning walk with our dog Sidney – surrounded by nature, breathing the fresh air and feeling so alive.
    It makes me feel happy and healthy. It makes me appreciate what I have. It ticks lots of boxes – such a simple thing!

  • Start with, there’s no such thing as non-depressed, non-anxious people. We all share these moods. It’s likely that those who exercise manage these moods. But someone with a severe depression won’t be able to exercise, and there’s no way that exercise will prevent a severe depression if an individual suffers from major affective disorders. What you’re splitting hairs about are the different types and degrees of the affective and anxiety disorders.

  • I rely on my workouts to keep me sane. I’ve also found that just moving around the house, picking up, tidying, straightening up can really help if I’m feeling a bit anxious.

  • Heather

    I wonder if you have seen this research: http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?id=depressingly-easy
    Seems somewhat related to me, and also a good topic for your blog, maybe?

  • I, too, exercise regularly because it makes me feel so good. It’s a no-brainer for me.

  • Try thinking about the link between mood and exercise from a wellness perspective. Exercise is not a treatment for depression, instead regular exercise is an essential nutrient for our body, just like oxygen or water.
    Without regular exercise our body becomes stressed and cortisol levels begin to rise. Among other changes our serotonin levels also begin to rise which has an effect in the short term of lowering our levels of anxiety.
    However, if our cortisol levels remain high (as with chronic stress) we cannot maintain adequate levels of serotonin and our serotonin levels become low. Ultimately this predisposes us to increasing levels of anxiety and depression.
    Stress triggers the fight/flight response in our body and leads to a whole cascade of hormonal and physiological changes in our body, priming us for the flight/ fight.
    Exercise, especially intense, sweaty, can’t talk, can’t breathe sort of exercise simulates the fight/ flight and helps bring the internal effects of stress back to normal levels.
    Studies show that regular exercise helps depression, sleep patterns, high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, appetite and so much more.
    My wellness perspective shows me that without regular exercise we become prone to these diseases as our body tries to adapt to a loss of something critical to our wellbeing.

  • I, too, exercise regularly because it makes me feel so good. It’s a no-brainer for me.

  • Lauren

    Just to add my two cents worth- Exercise increases expression of something called Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) in the brain and this in turn increases serotonin levels (and stimulates increases in mood). It is hypothesised that antidepressants (such as SSRI’s) act on BDNF also to reduce depression, and that combining exercise and antidepressant medication can have an additive effect on mood symptoms.

  • Christoph

    I wonder if there would be a difference between the mood of a twin if both twins are exercising versus the mood of the same twin if only one of the twins is exercising. The summary of the paper reads as if exercise does not work for twins.

  • On those days when I rise early and do yoga, I seem to feel “quietly joyous”, my morning seems to fairly glide by, and little things don’t bother me as much. I think a lot of it has to do with the advice from the instructor to “open [my] heart” and breathe (I use a DVD and do it at home).
    As a nurse practitioner, I’ve told my diabetic patients that the saying “it takes money to make money” is the same for exercise. It dovetails nicely with Dr Mark Pope’s comments.

  • Julia

    Many researchers will tell you “one study is one study.” The psychological, cognitive, and other non-cardio benefits of exercise are well documented, and I highly recommend the book “Spark” by John Ratey.

  • Pam

    I doubt that my experience is unique, but it’s certainly recent–about 7 weeks ago I noticed a worrisome downturn in my mood (related to work stress), and was beginning to consider “seeking help”…I compared notes with a friend who was in a similar slump, and we agreed to begin meeting at the gym every weekday morning to work out. My mood reversed to extreme optimism and energy by day 2 of this commitment, and today, at the end of those 7 weeks of daily, hard-core spinning and weight training classes, both my friend and I have tons of energy and endorphin-fueled good moods. Some of this I attribute to the confidence inspired by doing something to change my situation, the rest by endorphins and feeling great physically. I’m a believer!

  • SND

    Many of the yay-sayers commenting to this blog entry are quite proud of themselves and judgmental of others. I’m glad exercising makes you more content. It doesn’t have that effect on everyone.
    I’m coming from a wellness perspective, too. I want to become healthier so that I can manage my bipolar disorder. But exercising ain’t gonna cut it. So you know what I do instead?
    I take my meds. Every morning and every night. It’s a no-brainer for me.

  • I think we have to experience physical extremes to maintain happiness. Back when we had to chase our food, we’d have to run once in awhile, so it would make sense that a jog makes us feel better. It’s sort of like how cold showers can treat depression: http://snipr.com/3q7b9

  • Tara Redekop

    I am inspired by your blog. It has opened my eyes on how with a few mindful choices, I can improve my life greatly. Thank you for sharing with us.

  • For me, since childhood, exercise has always been a way of life. Baseball, flag football, track when I was a kid and teenager. So, exercise is just what I do. I’ve always encourage my friends and family to exercise. But taking on something like exercise is like stopping smoking or losing weight. If you think you “should”, you won’t. No one want to do what they “should”. If exercise is a choice, then a person might have the space and freedom to begin. And one of the wonderful aspects of exercise is that – sooner or later – you feel so good doing it, so energetic, so balanced – you want to keep going and make the time to do it the next day. Of course, the benefits of exercise are widely known. If it’s your choice, you can begin.

  • Exercise is a key to happiness. It protects people from symptoms and helps them to maintain the fitness.Signs
    Of Depression