Anyone who has sweated out frustrations or kickboxed away post-breakup feelings knows that a little gym time can work wonders on your psyche. But unlike some of the other things we swear make us feel good—another piece of chocolate cake, anyone? —when it comes to exercise, science is firmly on our side. There is an exercise happiness connection.
The New York Times recently published an in-depth exploration into the connection between positive vibes and physical activity. As it turns out, exercise really can make us happier. According to new research, even small doses of activity—we’re talking 10 minutes per day—can yield major benefits for our mood. And it gets even better: the research shows it doesn’t really matter what type of exercise you do for those 10 minutes, as long as you do it.
Here’s a look at what the scientists found, plus a quick primer on endorphins and the other chemicals that produce feel-good vibes during exercise.
The Journal of Happiness Studies research
According to recent research in the Journal of Happiness Studies—a legitimate peer-reviewed journal, despite its unconventional name—there is a consistently positive relationship between exercise and mental wellbeing. Zhanjia Zhang and Weiyun Chen looked at more than 1,100 studies conducted between 1980 and 2017. From there, the two researchers focused specifically on 15 observational and eight intervention studies.
The collection of studies showed that even small bursts of exercise can make a difference in mood. That said, the randomized and controlled trials focused mostly on older people and cancer survivors. While the two researchers were reluctant to draw any conclusions for the rest of the population—younger people or healthy adults—their findings could still affect how we think about depression.
In addition to making people feel happy regardless of the state of their mental health, exercise has been shown to have a positive on people who struggle with depression. According to Dr. Michael Craig Miller, assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, exercise may work as well as antidepressants for some patients.
Physical activity’s link to mental health involves a few different factors. For one, exercise can help people improve sleep patterns, reduce blood pressure and minimize stress. High-intensity exercise releases endorphins and other chemicals that produce that beloved “runner’s high,” which leaves exercisers feeling good after logging in a workout.
Dr. Miller also points out that low-intensity exercise plays a role in neurotrophic growth factors. This means that sustained, moderate activity can actually cause nerve cells to grow in the brain—activity that, in turn, increases brain function, improves cell connections and helps regulate mood.
The role of endorphins
When you think about exercise and mood, endorphins are likely the first thing that come to mind. Terms like “endorphin junkie” and “runner’s high” get tossed around all the time as code words for that coveted post-workout positive feeling. Simply put, exercisers love the buzz they get from working out.
In biology, endorphins enter the picture when your body experiences stress. As you’re plugging away on your stationary bike or bench pressing at your max—activities that cause stress in your body—your brain is producing this neurochemical. Considered natural painkillers, endorphins are structurally quite similar to morphine. The brain chemicals activate the brain’s opioid receptors, which work to minimize discomfort in the body. Along with their ability to fight pain, endorphins produce feelings of euphoria and all-around happiness. Other activities that active the brain’s natural reward center—eating, drinking, having sex, and receiving affection, to name a few—also release endorphins.
Endorphins tend to get most of the attention for creating that little boost in our mood. But in reality, there are many more elements at play. Studies have found that low levels of serotonin and norepinephrine could cause depression in some cases. These neurochemicals are also released during your regular workouts. Norepinephrine plays a role in helping you focus and works to improve mood. Serotonin, on the other hand, regulates mood and social behavior, as well as sleep and memory function.
In short, post-exercise happiness and stress relief can be chalked up to a whole cocktail of brain chemicals released when you get moving—not just endorphins.
Research clearly outlines a plethora of mind-body benefits that stem from exercising. If you’re looking to improve your mood rather than perfect your physique, as little as 10 minutes of movement per day could help you feel a difference. But happiness is a complex thing, and more research is required to determine the exact amount—and type—of physical needed to achieve an optimal mood. Until that time comes, listen to your body and see what works for you personally. And above all else, get moving. Even if your brain is dreading it, you’re guaranteed to feel a lift in your spirits afterward.