Have you ever noticed that you feel great after going for a run? Do you love working out or playing sports on a regular basis? The vast majority of studies addressing this subject have shown that there is a significant association between exercise and improved mood and mental well-being. However, it has proven difficult to show that exercise directly causes these improvements. Are “happier people” simply more inclined to exercise or does exercise result in a more positive mood and greater mental well-being?

Researchers studying exercise have consistently found that it has a positive impact on mood. It has been proven that physical activity stimulates the release of “feel-good” chemicals in the brain, called endorphins (Fox, 1999). Some researchers argue that exercise acts as a diversion from negative thoughts (Smith, 2006). Others argue that exercise improves mood by virtue of the personal growth and goal attainment that results from efforts to master a physical skill (Ströhle, 2009). Furthermore, research evidence indicates that the social interaction involved in certain kinds of exercise (such as team sports) contributes to personal satisfaction and consequently, mood enhancement (Stubbe, 2007)

Exercise has also been studied as an alternative treatment to the traditional antidepressant medications and cognitive-behavioral therapies used for depression. The Cochrane Review (the most world-renowned review of its kind) has produced a landmark meta-analysis of studies on exercise and depression. Twenty-three studies were rigorously selected amongst a pool of over 100 studies. Based on collective evidence, it was concluded that exercise has a “large clinical impact” on depression.

Blumenthal et al. studied the effect of exercise on older adults experiencing clinical depression. They compared exercise to a commonly prescribed anti-depressant medication (Zoloft), and found that both treatments were equally effective in reducing depressive symptoms.

The jury still seems to be out in terms of whether or not exercise causes happiness and to what degree it has a positive impact on well-being compared to other factors. While we think the evidence supports exercise as being beneficial, we look forward to seeing new studies in this area in the upcoming years.

Practical Tips for Exercise

  • If possible, engage in at least 30 minutes of moderate-intense physical activity on a daily basis.
  • Vary the type of exercise you do, and choose activities that use your strengths and that you enjoy, even achieving a flow state!
  • For those who cannot do high impact workouts, try low impact activities like walking, swimming, or biking.

Here’s an infographic about 16 benefits why exercise makes us happy, contributed by one of our readers (source).


Update 4/20/2023

Exercise at least as effective as pharmaceuticals and psychotherapy for depression and anxiety:

According to a recent systematic review in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, “The effect size reductions in symptoms of depression (−0.43) and anxiety (−0.42) are comparable to or slightly greater than the effects observed for psychotherapy and pharmacotherapy.”

This closely reflects the results of an extensive systematic analysis by Cochrane Reviews a few years back. The conclusion of the Cochrane Review:
“There was no difference between exercise and psychological therapy or pharmacological treatment on the primary outcome.”

Key Points:

  • It takes a while for exercise to work, (by generating endorphins, endocannabinoids, BDNF etc), so for major depression, consultation with a specialist regarding immediate treatment remains the top priority.
  • Moderate exercise works as well as intensive exercise.
  • Resistance exercise is best for depression (this mirrors the conclusion of the Cochrane Review, along with “mixed exercise” ).
  • Yoga and other mind–body exercises were most effective for reducing anxiety.

Continue Learning about Physical Well-being!