Next time you feel glum, remember even a small amount of exercise could have an outsize effect on your happiness.

According to research on good moods and physical activity, people who work out even once a week for as little as 10 minutes a day tend to be more cheerful than those who never exercise. And any type of exercise may be helpful.

Effects Of Exercise On The Brain

The idea that moving can affect our moods is not new. Many of us would probably say that we feel less moody or more relaxed after a long walk, jog or visit to the gym.

Studies have shown that exercise stimulates many changes in the brain such as increased blood flow and the creation of new neural pathways. Hormones such as endorphins, serotonin, dopamine, and testosterone are also released in response to increased physical activity.

  • Endorphins give you a post-exercise high. They are your body’s natural painkillers, they reduce discomfort, enhance pleasure and improve self-esteem.
  • Serotonin controls your appetite, helps you sleep sounder, and regulates your mood. These factors all go hand-in-hand to make us feel happier, calmer, and more stable.
  • Dopamine is that pleasurable habit-forming hormone that keeps you coming back for more. It signals the reward and pleasure centers in our brains, which help motivate us to take action and work towards things that make us feel good.
  • Testosterone, crucial for both men and women, is important for your metabolism, muscle growth and libido. Low levels can lead to depression and obesity. Regular exercise, especially endurance/resistance training, raises testosterone levels.
What Type Of Exercise And For How Long?

To get to the bottom of these questions researchers at the University of Michigan aggregated and analyzed 23 past studies of exercise and happiness for a review in The Journal of Happiness Studies.

“Every one of the observational studies showed a beneficial relationship between being physically active and being happy.”

Says Weiyun Chen, an associate professor of kinesiology at the University of Michigan, who, with her graduate student Zhanjia Zhang, wrote the review.

The type of exercise did not seem to matter. Some happy people walked or jogged. Others practiced yoga-style posing and stretching.

And the amount of exercise needed to influence happiness was slight. In several studies, people who worked out only once or twice a week said they felt much happier than those who never exercised. In other studies, 10 minutes a day of physical activity was linked with more buoyant moods.

But more movement generally contributed to greater happiness. 

If people exercised for at least 30 minutes on most days, which is the standard American and European recommendation for good health,  they were about 30% more likely to consider themselves happy than people who did not meet the guidelines.

“I think the indications are strong that exercise can contribute to happiness and, while anything helps, a bit more is probably better.”