Exercise and Mood

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This article was edited and updated on December 12, 2021.

What do we know about exercise and how it affects our mood?

There is plenty of research to suggest that we feel better after we exercise! Science provides the answer to "Why?"

Generally speaking, research about exercise and how it affects our mood — both positively or negatively — has usually concentrated on the negative components of mental health, such as depression, anxiety, and other stress-related disorders. However, some researchers — including McAuley in 1994, and McAuley and Rudolph in 1995 — "argued the importance of examining the relationship between physical activity and more positive elements of psychological functioning, including self-esteem, self-efficacy, and general well-being."

Thirty-eight different studies were chosen to examine "the relation[ship] between regular physical activity and general psychological well-being in older adult populations." The results reveal that the vast majority of studies report a positive association between physical activity and well-being (McAuley & Rudolph, 1995). While this relationship appears to be independent of the mode of exercise employed (Mihalko & McAuley, 1996), the strength of the association is greater for programs lasting 10 weeks or longer."2

Depression is more common with age (LaRue, Dessonville, & Jarvik, 1985). However, some studies suggest that this connection may worsen when physical activity decreases. Several studies show that "participation in regular exercises reduces depression in patients with mild-to-moderate levels of clinical depression" (Greist et al, 1979; Martinsen, Medhus, & Sandvik, 1985).

"There is mounting evidence that exercise plays an important role in helping individuals of all ages in managing anxiety and depression (Buckworth & Dishman, 2002)."3

In a Harvard Medical School study by Singh, Clements, and Fiatarone in 1997, researchers wondered if older adults who suffer from depression might benefit from strength training. The 32 persons chosen for the study (ranging in age from 60 to 84) met the researchers' diagnostic criteria for mild-to-moderate depression. One group had a regular strength training program; the other group attended a series of lectures and discussions. After 10 weeks, 82% of the strength exercisers no longer met the depression criteria, compared with 40% of those who attended class lectures and discussions.

A subsequent study by the same researchers in 2001 demonstrated that "a 20-week (10 supervised, 10 unsupervised) resistance traing program significantly reduced depression levels after 20 weeks of training and a 26-month follow-up."

Westcott (1995), using a questionnaire given to 49 middle-aged and older adults, established an 8-week strength-and-endurance program. Although statistical analyses were not performed, a tabulation of ratings suggested that the exercise program had a positive effect on the participants' self-confidence.

"Although more research is [seemingly always] needed in these areas, it appears that strength training has the potential to help counteract depression and enhance self-confidence in older adults." 4

What is happening during exercise that improves our mood?

During and after exercise, many people notice a euphoric feeling that makes them feel empowered. Endorphins5 and enkaphalins6, when released during exercise, are believed to cause euphoria — sometimes referred to as the "runner's high" — and they can also act as an analgesic to pain.

You might be interested to know that endorphins are also released when you smile. How much, how many, and how often endorphins are released depends a great deal on your body and its activities. But they probably won't be released if you walk a block. You have to exercise for at least 15 minutes before those endorphins are released.

In addition to improving your mood, exercise may help in other ways as well 7:

See also:

This article is part of a series about various health conditions and the benefits of exercise. The other articles are:

I am a BCRPA-certified fitness instructor in Vancouver, BC. I teach four classes at the West End Community Centre in Vancouver, BC, mostly designed for the older adult. The Inevitable Disclaimer: Everything published here expresses only my opinion, based on my training and research. What you do with the information is entirely your own responsibility. I am not liable for any injury you suffer that seems to be related to anything you read here. Always consult your doctor before beginning an exercise program. For other articles, return to the table of contents.

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  1. These three dots behave exactly like a footnote. Click on them and you will get more information about the topic. ↩︎

  2. ACE's Guide to the Fitness Professional, p 13 ↩︎

  3. ACE's Guide to the Fitness Professional, p 13 ↩︎

  4. Thanks to Fitness Professional's Guide to Strength Training the Older Adult, p 13 and 241. ↩︎

  5. Endorphins: "Any of a group of peptide hormones that bind to opiate receptors and are found mainly in the brain. Endorphins reduce the sensation of pain and affect emotions." ↩︎

  6. Enkaphalins: "Any of a group of peptide hormones that bind to opiate receptors and are found mainly in the brain. Endorphins reduce the sensation of pain and affect emotions." ↩︎

  7. Thanks to Fitness Theory Manual, p 9. ↩︎