Why Exercise And Happiness Go Hand In Hand

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox, NCC, LPC
Updated March 5, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
The strength of the mind-body connection can be especially apparent when it comes to physical activity and its positive impacts on our mental health. There is a large body of evidence pointing to the ability of exercise to reduce stress, improve self-esteem, boost mood, and provide an array of other benefits.

These positive influences on our mental health can help create feelings of contentment, joy, and well-being. But why, exactly, does physical activity lead to happiness? And how can we improve our mood by exercising? Below, we’re examining the varying ways exercise can lead to increased happiness.  

What’s the connection between exercise and happiness?

Fostering happiness often starts with your well-being

Exercise isn't just good for your physical health, it's also good for your mental and emotional health. Physical activity can alleviate symptoms of common mental health conditions (e.g., depression and anxiety), improve mood, build self-confidence, and reduce stress—outcomes that often contribute to feelings of happiness. In the following sections, we’re going to expand on the various ways exercise can influence happiness.   

Producing mood-boosting endorphins

One of the primary contributors to feelings of happiness due to exercise is the release of hormones known as endorphins. When you put your body under strain, your brain produces these neurochemicals, which can help boost your mood, relax you, and relieve pain in your body. This can lead to a feeling of euphoria, often described as a “runner’s high”. 

In a study conducted at Penn State University, researchers examined the connection between exercise and levels of happiness and mood, stating: “We found that people who are more physically active have more pleasant-activated feelings than people who are less active, and we also found that people have more pleasant-activated feelings on days when they are more physically active than usual”.

Relieving stress

If you're going through a stressful situation, tension, fatigue, trouble sleeping, and a range of other physical symptoms can become a serious concern. Physical activity can help you release that built-up tension, boost your energy levels, and get a good night’s sleep. In one study, researchers found that, when put through a stressful situation, participants who exercised regularly experienced smaller negative emotional responses than those who did not.  

Research also suggests that stress-relieving exercises don’t have to be time- or effort-intensive. There is evidence that taking a 20-minute walk can alleviate stress. Additionally, research shows that low-impact forms of exercise like yoga can be effective methods of relieving stress.

Some people can relieve the most stress by simply going for a walk, where others prefer something like kickboxing. It doesn't matter what you're doing, something physical will allow your body to use up the energy you have stored from your stress and tension.

Improving self-esteem

Your feelings about your value can significantly impact the amount of happiness you feel. High levels of self-esteem can help you feel comfortable with who you are and provide you with confidence. Research suggests that exercise can improve self-esteem by fostering a sense of self-sufficiency, a positive self-image, and greater control over one’s body. 

In addition to the above-mentioned mood-boosting effects of exercise, it can help you feel like you are achieving something. When you set out to complete a workout and then do so, you may feel more driven, accomplished, and capable. Additionally, research confirms the link between exercise and a positive body image. Physical activity can lead to improved range of motion, strength, and overall control of your body, all of which may increase your confidence in your ability to use it effectively. 

Getting out of a slump

We sometimes experience periods during which we struggle to find motivation or energy. You may have gotten into a routine that causes you to feel uninspired or believe that something is missing. When this occurs, exercise can help motivate you, give you energy, and provide you with purpose. Our bodies were designed to be active. When we live sedentary lifestyles, we may be more tired at the end of a day, which can contribute to feelings of being stuck and affect our happiness. 

Research shows that physical activity can reduce fatigue and increase energy. In a review that included 12 studies, researchers found that exercise was associated with higher energy levels and reduced fatigue. If you include getting outdoors in your exercise regimen (by going for a run outside or hiking, for example), physical activity can have an even bigger impact. Exposure to the sun can improve symptoms of depression that may get in the way of happiness. 

One unique way that exercise can help you when you feel stuck is by providing you with objectives that you can strive to accomplish, which may boost your motivation and increase your self-esteem. Additionally, there is evidence that setting your own exercise goals can increase the chances of you achieving them. Consider creating objectives that are attainable and align with the types of exercise you currently participate in. For example, if you like to run, signing up for a 5K may provide you with purpose and motivation as you train—and self-esteem and a sense of accomplishment when you achieve that goal. 

Other ways of cultivating happiness

If you're on the search for happiness, exercise is just one of several strategies you can incorporate into your regular routine. There are several different ways of boosting your mood and experiencing feelings of satisfaction. Often, the key to finding happiness is taking small, sustained steps toward it. Here are some tips that can help you foster happiness:

  • Keep A Gratitude Journal – Consistently writing down what you’re thankful for can help you to focus on the positive aspects of your life. This is a simple shift in your mindset, but it can be highly effective. Consider writing down three things you’re grateful for each day. 
  • Work On Building Your Confidence – The more confident you are, the easier it may be to experience happiness in your life. A simple way to build confidence is to track your successes. When you take note of the areas in which you are succeeding, this acknowledgment can help to build your sense of self-efficacy, potentially prompting you to push yourself further. Try writing down several successes at the end of each day, even if they are small. Before you know it, you may have a long list of accomplishments.
  • Volunteer – It can be easy to become preoccupied with our day-to-day lives and forget to look outside of ourselves. If you’re looking to shift your mindset, consider finding ways to help out in your community. Studies show that helping others can improve our mental well-being. You may benefit from contributing your time to a cause you care about. Additionally, simply taking your mind off challenges in your life and putting it on someone else may increase your own level of happiness.
  • Talk To Someone – If you're struggling to feel satisfied or joyful, you may be living with a mental health concern or another life challenge that is getting in the way of your happiness. While exercise can positively impact your mood, if you're living with stress, anxiety, or depression, you may want to consider seeking professional help. Reaching out to a therapist can help you process complex emotions, identify potential sources of mental health challenges, and learn new ways of cultivating happiness in your life.

Fostering happiness often starts with your well-being

Fostering happiness with online therapy

There is evidence that online therapy can help improve the mood of individuals experiencing mental health challenges that may be related to physical health concerns. In one trial, for example, researchers found that participants living with chronic pain who completed an online cognitive behavioral therapy program experienced “significant increases in happiness and decreases in depression”. These positive outcomes—along with reductions in anxiety symptoms and improvements in self-compassion and optimism—were maintained for six months post-treatment. 

If you’re seeking support as you work to build a happy, healthy life, consider connecting with a qualified mental health professional through an online therapy platform like BetterHelp. Working with a therapist online, you can explore the mind-body connection and its effects on happiness remotely, through video call, voice call, or in-app messaging. You’ll also have the option of reaching out to your therapist outside of sessions, which can be helpful if you have a question about challenges that may be getting in the way of your happiness, such as depression. 

Takeaway

Existing research overwhelmingly supports the use of exercise to improve your mood, reduce stress, and boost self-esteem. Adding exercise into your routine is an effective way of cultivating happiness in your day-to-day life—as is working with a qualified mental health professional online. With the right approach, you can nurture feelings of contentment, joy, and well-being as you navigate the path to mental and emotional wellness.
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