Everyone knows the benefits of exercise: stronger muscles, more energy, weight management, better sleep. A mood boost is often tacked on as a bonus. But there is stronger evidence than ever before that movement not only improves your mental health, but also protects it.
Depression is the fourth most serious disease worldwide, yet the psychological benefits of exercise have been overlooked, says Jack Raglin, a professor of kinesiology at the Indiana University’s School of Public Health: “The evidence just keeps on coming.”
In fact, even if you were to exercise for the sake of your mind alone, it would be well worth doing – and the good news is, a little makes a big difference. Here’s how to move yourself happy.
How does movement boost our moods?
It’s widely believed that the psychological benefits of exercise come from the release of endorphins, but that is an oversimplification. “The evidence for that is really weak,” says Raglin.
Instead, when we exercise, we produce a cocktail of hormones, including endocannabinoids – all of which contribute to making us feel good. Endorphins are produced at a certain intensity of activity, but the mood-boosting effects of exercise are felt at a much lower level.
What kind of psychological benefits are we talking about?
Multiple and pronounced benefits. Not only does exercise increase positive “affect” (or emotion), it decreases negative affect, equating to a one-two hit of good feeling.
A single “dose” of exercise can improve your mood for several hours, says Raglin. But not only are the benefits “immediate and perceivable”: with a regular regimen, they can accrue over weeks. “In other words, there is a long-term and continual improvement,” he says.
Exercise has also been shown to be effective in treating clinical anxiety and people admitted to hospital with psychological disorders. But there are also large benefits to be had for those who have above-average levels of anxiety but fall below the standard for clinical diagnosis, says Raglin.
How active do I need to be to feel psychological benefits?
If your primary aim is to improve your mood, the bar for what counts as exercise is far lower than it is for weight loss or fitness gains. “You can see very large psychological benefits with low-intensity exercise,” says Raglin. “It’s not like the longer or harder you exercise, the better you feel.”
This is especially relevant if you are new to exercising. “People have been preprogrammed to think about exercise in terms of physical benefits – they think that if they’re to get something out of it, they have to get sweaty or tire themselves out,” says Raglin. “Thinking: ‘I don’t enjoy that, it’s hard, I’m out of shape, I’m old’ can scare them out of starting. But if they think: ‘I mainly want to do this to feel better’ – that’s all they need.”
Doing 15 to 20 minutes of aerobic exercise three times a week is where you will see the “long-term, more profound” benefits, says Raglin – but any “dose” will have an effect. “Walking for five minutes can be a mood lifter,” he says. “The dosage, the ‘pill’ that you need to produce a psychological benefit is quite small, and very palatable.”
Julia Basso, an assistant professor in the department of human nutrition, foods and exercise at Virginia Tech, studied the impact of different activities on mood, including high-intensity interval training and moderate to vigorous workouts, and found that even a simple exercise such as walking produced profound effects on mood. “Just getting out there and moving your body through time and space really helps,” she says.
What exercise is best?
Raglin and his fellow researchers compared aerobic and anaerobic forms of exercise, and found that the former (such as jogging, running, swimming or other cardio) seemed to be more effective at reducing levels of anxiety. For people who were especially tense going into the activity, both forms worked equally well; a combination of the two was also found to be effective.
When any movement will bring benefits, Basso says the best activity is one you like to do – whether that’s swimming, team sports or dancing. “Individual preference really is the key driver in the mood-boosting benefits.”
Should I stick to a routine, or switch it up?
For improving fitness, variety is important – but for the psychological effects, the most effective exercise programme is one that you can maintain, says Raglin. He sees two types of people: those who find “their exercise”, and are content running the same route every day, and those who prefer to shake it up.
“It’s almost more about personality: both can work equally well,” Raglin says. Just take care, if you are used to doing one exercise, in switching to another, he adds: “When you are sore, it’s your body telling you that you’re using those muscles in a different way.”
Most potent is making activity a lifestyle, combining regular exercise and everyday movement. This not only alleviates anxiety, depression and other psychological disorders, it prevents their onset and regulates natural fluctuations of mood.
I don’t exercise, but I need a mood boost. Where do I start?
Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University who wrote The Joy of Movement, suggests that people seek out an activity that makes them feel good. “That can mean redefining movement away from the types of workout that people are typically drawn to when they are trying to maximise calorie burn, or make their body look a certain way,” she says.
If you are uncertain about exercising, or have had bad experiences in the past, McGonigal says you can sweeten the pill by combining it with socialising, time spent outdoors and/or music. Just moving for three minutes to your favourite song will make a difference, she says: “That is the easiest win in the world.”
I don’t like group exercise! Will a solo workout make me as happy?
One study found that the antidepressive effects of exercise applied equally to participants doing regular aerobics classes in a group, and to those doing the same workout at home with remote instruction. “You might enjoy it in different ways, and get different psychological benefits with social exercise – but you’re still going to feel benefits if you exercise alone,” says Raglin.
At the same time, having an “accountability buddy” or other social element to exercise has been shown to support a regular regimen. You may also find it harder to challenge yourself when working out solo – and, while any movement is better than none, reaching a new personal best is another route to feeling good.
What if I have mobility issues, or a disability?
Walking generates some of the most profound effects, so elderly people can experience the benefits of movement, too. Walking is also the most common form of physical activity recorded among active adults with mobility disability. Swimming, if possible, can be especially beneficial given that it supports the body and reduces the risk of injury or discomfort in the joints.
But if physical mobility is a challenge, even a straightforward change in posture can make a difference. McGonigal devised an eight-minute workout of “joy moves”: open, energetic or triumphant positions that embody positive states of mind and feel good. These include bouncing from foot to foot and star-jumping for joy – but even simply reaching up your arms or swaying from side to side can give you a boost.
McGonigal teaches joy moves as part of group exercise classes that have included wheelchair users, and people in their 80s and above. “This does not require being young, or able-bodied; it’s not dependent on intensity,” she says. “It’s about a physical expression: using your body to connect to these movements that signify our capacity for joy – and activate it, too.”
How can I supercharge my workout for joy?
By harnessing the power of the mind – or the placebo effect. Research has shown that your attitudes towards or expectations of exercise can influence the outcome, good or bad. “If you believe that it’s going to make you feel better, then the benefits are even greater than they would be otherwise,” says Raglin. “You really can get more out of it.”
The other trick Raglin suggests is tapering your workouts, so that you finish feeling strong and upbeat – not knackered. “Some research shows how you feel at the end of a workout is important for how you feel about exercise,” he says. “If the hard part of your workout is in the middle, but you backed off at the end – that’s what you remember.”
I feel great! If I exercise more, will I feel even better?
What’s important is consistency, says Basso. Over time, the brain comes to associate exercise with that burst of happy-making chemicals, making it want to do it over and over again. “It’s important for the brain to learn that exercise is rewarding and make it a habit.”
Once a regular routine is in place, research suggests that there is more to gain from exercise by increasing the frequency – say, by going from twice a week to four times a week, says Basso. Indeed, a 2019 study by Harvard researchers found a 26% decrease in the odds of becoming depressed for each major “bump” in physical activity. The author Karmel Choi, a clinical and research fellow at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, gives the example of replacing sitting with just 15 minutes of running or one hour of brisk walking, with each “bump” accumulating to protect your mood. “Any kind of movement can add up to keep depression at bay,” says Choi.
I don’t feel better! Is exercise just not for me?
Immediately after high-intensity aerobic exercise, it’s possible that you might feel worse, says Raglin. Physical symptoms such as sweating, shaking or hyperventilation can worsen negative mood, but “within 15 to 20 minutes, that all disappears and these feelings of relaxation start to enter into the equation”, he says.
But not everyone experiences the fabled post-exercise “high”, says McGonigal – especially those starting out. She says it can take about six weeks of regular exercise for your brain to anticipate the feelgood factor. In the meantime, McGonigal suggests doing whatever you can to make the experience more enjoyable – whether it’s by roping in friends or adding an upbeat soundtrack. “All of those things will give you a more immediate reward for movement while your brain catches up.”
How long does this post-workout high last?
After a workout, Basso says, people experience a “nice two-hour window of calm”. Some feelings of decreased stress, increased happiness and relaxation may persist for as long as 24 hours.
But the longitudinal question, of how long the mood-boost from movement lasts without maintenance, has not been explored by researchers. Basso suspects it is probably akin to muscle degradation: “We know that when we stop exercising, a lot of the physical benefits decrease over several weeks, so it is important to keep it up.”
But, she adds, there is evidence to suggest that “the body remembers” – that it’s easier to restart a regimen if we have exercised in the past, and that we might even feel the benefits more quickly. This is also demonstrated by the fact that people who have exercised when they are young tend to be more physically active when they are older, Basso adds. “It’s important for parents to know that getting their kids physically active is not just a way to decrease stress during childhood and adolescence; it will also help them sustain activity levels in older age.”
Is it possible to overdo it?
Studies of competitive athletes have shown that they may not benefit from the mood boost of exercise. In fact, it can be the opposite, says Raglin: “The more they train, the worse they feel psychologically.” It is even possible that a minority will go on to develop clinical depression as a result of overtraining, separate to the pressure of competition.
But these adverse effects are restricted to serious athletes. For the rest of us, any movement can only be beneficial. McGonigal calls it the “feel-better effect”. “There seems to be no dose too small, no movement too modest,” she says. “What’s so great is that when you look at the research, you can’t find the exercise that doesn’t work. Swimming? Tai chi? Powerlifting? Yes! It all works!”