Why Does Exercise Make You Happy? What The Research Reveals

In addition to the numerous physical health benefits of exercise, another reason why people like working out is because exercise has the powerful ability to improve your mental health, boost your mood, and make you feel happier.

After all, who hasn’t finished a tough workout and felt so much emotionally lighter and happier afterward?

But why does exercise make you happy? What is it about being physically active that helps boost your mood? 

In this article, we will discuss what exercise does to the brain, why people like working out from a mental health standpoint, and how exercise makes you happier.

We will cover: 

  • Why Does Exercise Make You Happy?
  • What Types of Exercise Boosts Happiness?

Let’s get started!

A person punching hand weights and smiling.

Why Does Exercise Make You Happy?

Although most of us have been fortunate enough to experience the mood-boosting effects of working out, wouldn’t it be interesting to have the answer to how and why does exercise make you happy?

In other words, what is it about moving your body that helps improve your mood and provides some of the other mental health benefits of being active?

Evidence suggests that the foundational effects of exercise that are largely responsible for many of the physical health benefits—that is, the increase in blood circulation due to your elevated heart rate—is also chiefly responsible for the mechanisms by which exercise boosts your mental state.

At rest, your heart rate is slow because your muscles are not contracting forcefully, rapidly, or consistently, so the heart only needs to pump a minimal amount of blood to your organs, muscles, and other tissues of the body to keep them perfused. 

A runner with their eyes closed, smiling.

As you start exercising, your muscles demand a significant amount of oxygen and other nutrients in order to create the cellular energy (ATP) they need to contract and perform movement. 

To deliver this requisite oxygen and nutrients, your heart starts beating much faster and stronger in order to increase cardiac output and fuel your muscles.

During exercise, blood flow to the brain also increases. Because blood is the transport medium that carries oxygen and other nutrients, including glucose (blood sugar), the brain starts to receive a healthy supply of nutrients and energy.

Studies have suggested that a well-oxygenated brain can help better manage depression and anxiety, which is likely one of the primary reasons why research has consistently shown that exercise has the ability to help alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety. 

In other words, your workouts help increase circulation to your brain, which in turn, helps your brain better regulate mood and quell anxiety.

Two people smiling and jogging as exercise boosts mood.

There are also numerous mood-boosting neurotransmitters that can be released during exercise or which see a spike in production as a response to exercise.

For example, exercise can increase the production and activity of neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine. These natural chemical messengers play a role in managing mood and are often considered “feel-good” chemicals.

Researchers have long believed that the primary reason why exercise can boost your mood and make you feel happy and the main reason why people like working out from a mental health standpoint is due to an increase in endorphins, chemicals that are released in the brain that can interfere with receptors that normally elicit signals of pain. 

In this way, an “endorphin rush“ can reduce the perception of pain.

Thoughts on whether it is indeed endorphins that are produced during exercise that help alleviate pain and boost your mood are somewhat mixed. Some research has suggested that endorphins are not able to cross the blood-brain barrier and may, therefore, have limited reach in terms of their effect during exercise.

A yoga class.

However, most researchers and fitness experts still believe that endorphins are largely responsible for why exercise makes you happy.

Additionally, the research that has potentially put into question whether it is endorphins that are chiefly responsible for the mood-boosting and pain-alleviating effects of exercise has identified that even if it is not necessarily “endorphins“ per se, there are other brain chemicals at play that get produced during exercise.

Whether they are produced instead of or in addition to endorphins, studies have suggested that exercise increases the production and release of endocannabinoids, which are other natural pain-relieving compounds that not only help decrease pain but can also increase pleasure.

The increase in the production of feel-good chemicals and positive, mood-boosting neurotransmitters during exercise will certainly have short-term effects that will leave you feeling happier after your workout, potentially up to several hours afterward.

Two people laughing and exercising.

But the good news doesn’t stop there.

Evidence suggests that consistent exercise can actually cause positive structural and functional adaptations to the brain over time that help improve mental health and cognitive performance, potentially reducing the risk of depression, anxiety, dementia, memory loss, and other adverse brain-related conditions.

Exactly how much exercise is needed to induce these changes is still not fully elucidated.

However, many researchers and fitness experts suggest that there are numerous beneficial and chronic changes that result in a healthy brain and mind for those who exercise for a minimum of an hour three days a week.

This is also true for those who consistently meet the recommendations for physical activity for adults set forth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the British Heart Foundation, which are to accumulate either 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity cardio exercise per week.

Two people doing planks while slapping hands.

In addition to producing more “feel-good“ natural chemicals like serotonin, dopamine, brain-derived neurotrophic factor, endocannabinoids, and possibly endorphins, another way in which exercise helps you feel happier and boosts your mood is that it decreases the levels of certain chemicals in the body that otherwise lead to feelings of stress and anxiety. 

For example, exercise has been shown to decrease levels of adrenaline and cortisol. 

Adrenaline is the hormone that is chiefly responsible for the “fight-or-flight response,” so it’ll make you feel agitated, nervous, and edgy. 

Cortisol is the primary stress hormone, and high levels of cortisol can lead to anxiety, fatigue, an increase in appetite, and even weight gain.

Therefore, as exercise can reduce the levels of agitating natural compounds, a good workout can leave you feeling more relaxed and at peace afterward, allowing your good mood to shine through.

A person in exercise clothing listening to music.

What Types of Exercise Boosts Happiness?

All types of physical activity can be beneficial for your mind and mood, potentially helping you feel happier, less stressed, and more at peace.

With that said, most of the research on the ability of exercise to boost mood and make you feel happier has been conducted on aerobic exercise such as running, cycling, walking, and swimming. 

All of these forms of cardio exercise may be particularly beneficial for boosting your mood and making you feel happier in the short term because cardio workouts will elicit the most potent heart rate response and really get the blood circulation to your brain flowing.

Again, in the presence of a rich abundance of oxygen and nutrients, the brain may not only function better from a cognitive standpoint but may be better able to produce mood-boosting neurotransmitters and regulate symptoms of depression and anxiety.

With that said, there are studies to suggest that low-intensity forms of exercise, such as yoga and tai chi, can also help you feel happier and improve your mood and sense of overall well-being.

A person outside raising their arms and smiling.

Resistance training also has the potential to improve your mood and help you feel happier.

More research is still necessary to fully understand which types of exercise are most impactful on your mood. It may be that the most potent stimulus for chronic and lasting adaptations to the brain and mind that lead to healthier functions comes from habitual aerobic exercise due to the more heightened cerebral blood flow.

However, the most important thing to keep in mind is that any type of exercise that you enjoy will also be the best way to feel happier during and after your workouts. The value of feeling good about how you are moving your body, and enjoying your workouts, cannot be overstated.

Remember, the next time you feel like skipping out on your workout because you are feeling down or in a bad mood, not only will you be robbing yourself of all of the numerous physical health benefits, but you will also be missing out on a potential ticket to feeling happy by getting in a good workout.

Choose the exercise you enjoy doing most.

People dancing in a Zumba class.

If you are feeling particularly low in terms of mood and energy, start moving your body with the goal of being active for 10 minutes. 

Chances are, once your heart gets pumping all of that oxygenated blood to your brain, and your brain starts producing the numerous feel-good neurotransmitters and hormones, you won’t want to stop at just 10 minutes, and you’ll get your full workout in. 

The result? A complete turnaround on your day, leaving you feeling not only happy that you did your workout but truly happy.

For some great cardio ideas to get that blood flowing, check out our article: 7 High-Powered Cardio Workouts to start today!

People smiling in a class at the gym, flexing their biceps.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, and contributes to several fitness, health, and running websites and publications. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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