Exercise Improves Mood: Evidence and 7 Ways To Be More Active

“A sound mind is in a sound body.” – Greek Proverb

Going beyond more than a witty catch phrase, this idea is an important one.  It addresses the idea that the mind is the body.  Check out my earlier post about this here: Reframing Stress as a State of Mind.  [MP1] There is a growing body of research that illustrates that movement, as well as a lack thereof, has an impact on our mental health.  It is widely accepted that exercise increases the production of certain “feel good” neurotransmitters in the brain that have a direct influence on our sense of well-being and health.   

The first of these neurotransmitters are endorphins.  Endorphins are neurochemicals that act as pain reducers.  They interact with the opiate receptor of the brain, similar to morphine and codeine.  Due to their interaction with the opiate receptors, we experience euphoria. 

For most of us, exercise is not exactly comfortable.  Due to this discomfort in the body, endorphins are released to help ease the pain associated with added physical stress.  Although these neurotransmitters follows the same pathways as an opiate, it has not been linked to addiction or dependence (Reference).  

The second neurotransmitter that is increased during exercise is serotonin.  Serotonin helps the body regulate its sleep/wake cycle, appetite and digestion, sexual drive, mood and social behavior, memory, the formation of blood clots, and helps maintain self-esteem (Reference ).  Research suggests that in cases of mild depression, exercise is recommended to increase serotonin levels rather than a regimen of  antidepressant medications (Reference). 

The third neurotransmitter that is affected by exercise is dopamine.  Dopamine works directly with memory, the ability to focus on tasks and mental processes, problem-solving, social functioning, movement, mood, and how we process pain (Reference). Dopamine also works with the reward system in our brain.  When we experience something pleasurable, dopamine is the neurotransmitter that drives us to recreate the same conditions that led to the pleasurable outcome.  If exercise increases an endorphin production, and a pleasurable feeling is the result, dopamine is then released to reinforce the recreation of that activity (Reference). 

In a study conducted (Reference ) in 1979, results indicated that “running is just as effective as psychotherapy in alleviating symptoms of depression.”  In this study, individuals were subjected to a 10-week program.  They were separated into 3 groups.  One group ran 3 times per week for 20 minutes per session.  The second group ran 3 times per week and participated in weekly 60-minute cognitive therapy sessions.  The third group solely attended cognitive therapy sessions.  The results showed that all three groups reduced their depressive symptoms as listed on a symptoms checklist.  In addition to that, all three groups maintained a reduction of symptoms during their four-month follow up. 

Adding some exercise to your daily routine doesn’t have to be a stressful event either.  As you can see from the study above, it only takes a few minutes of your day, which could be included in your daily life without having to make extra time for it.  Here are a few suggestions.

  1. Walking for only 20 minutes a day has mood enhancing benefits.  Walk to the store if you can, go for a walk on your lunch break or in the evening after dinner, etc.  Any type of walking that increases your heart rate will help.  (Reference)
  2. You don’t need to go to the gym to do resistance training.  Do some push ups during commercials while watching your favorite television program.  Do some crunches on the alternating commercial breaks.  Walk up and down the stairs in your house.  You can even walk around the house or do lunges with gallons of water. 
  3. If you have time to get to an area where there is nature, head to a state or national park.  Being out in nature PLUS doing something active offers an added boost to your mood. 
  4. Make it social.  Making plans to meet with others to do something active adds the element of accountability into the equation.  Having others to be active with also creates a boost of serotonin, the neurotransmitter that is increased through social engagement. 
  5. Run around with your children.  Play a sport with them.  Our children don’t mind if we’re not good at the sports that we play with them.  What matters most is the time that we are taking to spend with them. 
  6. If you are competitive, download an app to help you track your daily activity[MP2] .  This can create a sense of motivation and accomplishment when you begin and complete fitness challenges that some apps offer. 
  7. Most importantly, do something fun.  If it’s not fun, then it might not be sustainable. 

Let’s lace up and get outside together. If you are still unsure how to be more active, give us a call. Also, if you know any adolescents who could benefit from more movement and emotional support, please check out my Adolescent Running Group.




Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.