Like any good mother, my mom knows me well.
Any time we talk and she can sense I’m feeling less than my normal happy self, she’ll ask the same exact thing: “Have you exercised today, Krista?”
The question used to annoy me.
“I don’t feel like exercising today, Mom,” I’d whine.
But sooner or later, I started realizing that no matter how bad of mood I was in, if I fit in some exercise, whether it was a tough workout or even just a walk outside—I felt loads better.
Every single time.
Of course: mothers always know best.
Exercise and happiness: it’s not just a myth
When you work out and stay active on a regular basis, you may have noticed that you feel less stressed out, less anxious, and generally happier.
And that’s not just a coincidence.
Because studies suggest that there is a direct link between exercise and happiness—for a number of reasons.
Here are seven surprising reasons why exercise can make you happier:
1. It releases ‘happy chemicals’ into your brain.
If you’ve never heard of it, dopamine is a chemical in the brain called a neurotransmitter that’s necessary for feelings of pleasure and happiness.
And the depressing thing about it? Scientists believe that as we age, we’re constantly losing our stores of dopamine. This is why we need to constantly seek out experiences that release dopamine—or that you need dopamine to do.
And nothing is better than exercising to increase your brain’s dopamine production.
“The things that are best at [releasing dopamine] involve physical activity. So aerobic exercise is probably one of the best releasers of dopamine.” – Happy, the movie.
The answer? Exercise more, and more ‘happy chemicals’ will be released in your brain.
2. It helps you de-stress.
Not only can a tough workout help you sweat out the day’s worries, regular exercise can also help you become less stressed out in the long term.
That’s because when you exercise, you’re actually subjecting yourself to a low-level form of stress by raising your heart rate and triggering a burst of hormonal changes.
“Expose yourself to this ‘stress’ enough and your body builds up immunity to it. Eventually, it will get better at handling the rest of life’s stressors,” says clinical psychologist Jasper Smits, Ph.D., coauthor of Exercise for Mood and Anxiety.
And less stress equals a happier, healthier life.
3. It gives you more energy.
Like you, I have days when I feel too damn tired to exercise.
But no matter how exhausted I am, I always force myself to fit in a workout.
And I almost always have more energized after my workout than I did before it.
And it’s true: research has shown that exercise can be better at upping energy than stimulants.
So if you push yourself to get off the couch and get into workout mode, you’ll most likely feel more energized afterwards—and throughout the rest of the day.
“A lot of times when people are fatigued, the last thing they want to do is exercise,” says researcher Patrick O’Connor, co-director of the University of Georgia exercise psychology laboratory, in Athens, Ga. “But if you’re physically inactive and fatigued, being just a bit more active will help.”
Because no matter how counterintuitive it may seem, exercise actually increases energy levels and fights fatigue.
And when you have more energy to do all the things you want to do—like play with your kids, explore a national park or try a new sport—you’ll ultimately feel more satisfied with life.
4. It eases anxiety.
Recent studies on the effects of exercise show that in people suffering from anxiety, the immediate mood boost from exercise is followed by longer-term relief, similar to that offered by medication and talk therapy.
In fact, according to Daniel Landers, a professor emeritus in the department of kinesiology at Arizona State University, exercise seems to work better than relaxation, meditation, stress education and music therapy at easing anxiety.
So next time you’re feeling anxious, skip the meditation and try a hard workout instead—you’ll feel better for days on end.
5. It helps with depression.
An estimated 1 in 10 adults suffer from some form of depression, and even more probably go unreported. But rather than getting prescription meds to treat the blues, try exercising instead.
Studies on rats indicate that exercise mimics the effects of antidepressants on the brain—and there is increasing evidence that the same is true with humans.
And it really does make a difference: if I don’t exercise for even just a couple of days, I start feeling down and less motivated to do anything.
Exercise keeps my mood in check—and it’ll do the same for you.
6. It combats insomnia.
Trouble sleeping? Lack of exercise may be your problem.
Staying active on a regular basis has been shown to improve sleeping problems of insomniacs.
And research shows that people who begin exercising regularly report that their sleep quality improves significantly—changing their diagnosis from poor to good sleeper.
“Better sleep gave [the study participants] pep, that magical ingredient that makes you want to get up and get out into the world to do things,” says Kathryn Reid, PhD, of the Department of Neurobiology and Physiology at Northwestern University.
And when you get out in the world and do things, you’re automatically happier.
7. It gives you increased confidence.
Back in the days before I discovered my love for exercise, I had a pretty low self esteem.
Ok, really low.
Not only did I hate the way clothes fit me, I felt like crap constantly and fretted about the way I looked and felt.
But within weeks of beginning exercising, that all changed.
Not only did I like how I looked better, I felt stronger, more independent, and just plain happier.
Because that’s what exercise will do for you.
When you start working out and achieving goals you never thought possible, you’ll feel an incredible sense of accomplishment.
And that can do wonders for your happiness.
Get some exercise, get happier
Next time you’re feeling down, stressed or anxious, take some motherly advice—and go get some exercise.
Because not only does exercise change your body for the better, it can also change your outlook on life to a more positive one.
You’ll be happier—and healthier because of it.