How and Why Exercise Affects Mood and Makes You Feel Good From the Inside Out
This blog about exercise and mood was written by Casey Jackson, from the ReQuest Physical Therapy team.
Exercise has the potential to positively impact your health in a variety of ways. The most well-known benefits include improvements in strength, stability, and endurance.
However, we know very little about the mental benefits of participating in exercise. Some evidence suggests that exercise can reduce stress and even decrease depression and anxiety levels.
People often say that participating in physical activity “releases endorphins”. This explains why you feel so good after you finish running a mile or completing a set of squats. But what does that really mean and how does exercise lead to these long term benefits in mood?
The Neuroscience of Exercise and Mood
When you exercise, you are deliberately inducing a state of stress in your body.
In response, the human body releases neurochemicals and neurotransmitters to continue to function optimally. The neurochemicals are endorphins, and they help your body perceive less pain and discomfort during strenuous exercise. How do they do this? They bind to the opioid receptors in your brain, which has a very similar effect to morphine on the body.
Exercise also triggers the “fight or flight” response in the body. This happens with the release of additional neurotransmitters and triggers chemical reactions. The result is three specific areas of production:
- Norepinephrine, which increases heart rate and activates glucose release
- Dopamine, which works to dilate the blood vessels and increase bodily blood flow
- Serotonin, which regulates emotional response along with other bodily processes
Each of these works in a different way to stimulate the body, creating the overall “feel good” response to a good workout. Exercise and mood are closely linked, thanks to the natural function of your body.
Your Body, Your Mood
Your mood is the result of a combination of the release and absorption of many hormones in your body. This happens in response to the environment.
Exercise and Happiness
Happiness is created by a long list of hormones. Those most commonly recognized are:
Lucky for you, some of those are the same substances that are released during exercise. This includes serotonin and dopamine, also known as “happiness hormones.”
How do these hormones work? Dopamine taps into your “motivational salience” cognitive process. This regulates the intensity of your behavior to either achieve or avoid a goal. Serotonin can override the original impulse brought about by dopamine, and is the source of consistent motivation. By counteracting and complimenting each other, they improve your mood.
Endorphins also allow you to push through the pain during exercise. This happens by essentially numbing the body. However, you have neurotransmitters like dopamine to thank for the feel-good euphoria of “runner’s high,” as well as serotonin for the increased motivation that you experience during and after a session of physical activity. It may not feel great the whole time you exercise, but once you hit your stride, you’ll feel those “happy hormones.”
Researching Exercise and Mood
To prove that the link between exercise and mood exists, a collective study investigated the results of 20 peer-reviewed animal and human studies. This research spanned the course of over 20 years, and looked at the levels of both serotonin and dopamine post aerobic exercise. It also cataloged the possibility of using exercise as a treatment for drug rehabilitation. Why?
The use of drugs significantly disrupts the network of dopaminergic and serotonergic systems in the body. This research showed that in all of the studies, circulatory levels of dopamine and serotonin were increased after physical activity, and in fact “exercise can be a useful tool in the prevention and treatment of drug dependence”, (Davdand & Arazi, 2018).
There is a great deal of evidence outside of this study to suggest that exercise improves mood immediately after physical activity, but there are also benefits from exercise that can last far into the future.
The Long Term Effects of Exercise and Mood on the Body
Under stress, your body also releases a protein known as Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF). This improves cognitive function by protecting and repairing your memory neurons.
There are multiple studies that found increased levels of plasma BDNF after completing an extended aerobic exercise program. Additionally, increased levels of BDNF were found to be related to a quicker response rate to antidepressants (Phillips, 2017). BDNF is the reason why people feel a sense of clear-headedness after completing a session of exercise. There is also evidence to suggest that increased levels of BDNF can lead to improved cognitive function and information processing (Chang et al., 2017). Yes, this is a lot of research, but it’s proof that the connection exists – and is worth consideration.
In addition to improving mood, there is also evidence to show that exercise can create a positive impact on mental resilience.
One study surveyed 284 high school students. Results show that the students reporting higher levels of physical activity scored higher on the Mental Toughness Questionnaire.
The researchers defined mental toughness as “individual’s natural or developed capacity to be consistently successful in coping with the stress and anxiety associated with competitive and stressful situations”, (Gerber et al, 2012).
Improved mood and increased mental health. Who wouldn’t view those as benefits of exercise and whole-body health?
By inducing stress in the body within a controlled environment (during exercise), when stress arises again it seems to be much more manageable for most people. This is because you have experienced the exact same symptoms (increased heart rate, perspiration, and feelings of unsteadiness) previously through physical activity.
This is also why there is evidence to suggest that general anxiety can be reduced through exercise. This happens as you gradually teach your body that the symptoms of stress can actually be a good thing.
One popular treatment method for general anxiety is exposure therapy.
During this treatment, your mind and body are intentionally exposed to the factors that trigger anxiety. Instead of these symptoms occurring as the result of stress, fear or danger, you bring them on through healthy exercise and regular use of your body.
The goal is that by introducing these triggers in a controlled environment, you will develop coping mechanisms. Over time, the same triggers will no longer induce anxiety. Researchers studied the same concept as it relates to exercise.
“Exercise in many ways is like exposure treatment,” said researcher Dr. Otto Smits, Co-Director of the Anxiety Research and Treatment Program at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.”People learn to associate the symptoms with safety instead of danger,” (Weir, 2011).
Which Type of Exercise Has the Greatest Happiness Potential?
Exercise and mood are linked. So which types are the best for improving your mood?
One study investigated the effects of aerobic, anaerobic, and resistance exercises on levels of serotonin and beta-endorphins. These hormones are associated with happiness.
There were multiple steps in this research, but each had a specific purpose.
First, all participants had the same breakfast. Then, they completed a short session of exercise from one of the aforementioned groups (or no exercise if they were placed in the control group). Following this, a blood sample taken from each participant was analyzed.
Researchers found that all exercise groups showed improvements in the happiness hormones. However, aerobic exercise created significant increases in serotonin and BDNF compared to the other exercise groups (Sharifi, Hamedinia, & Hosseini-Kakhak, 2018).
What does this prove? In the context of this one study, it shows that aerobic exercise provides the largest benefit in terms of mood improvement.
It’s important to understand, though, that the study had a small sample size of only 32 participants. For this reason, it is difficult to generalize the results of aerobic exercise being the best form of exercise to release the “happiness hormones” to all participants of exercise.
Unfortunately, most studies investigating the mental benefits of exercise only include aerobic exercise as their experimental group. More research needs to be conducted to compare the mental health benefits and neurological effects of various forms of exercise.
The more research results available, the better.
Even though it featured a small sample size, the study above saw improvements in serotonin and beta-endorphin throughout all exercise groups. This increase in neurotransmitters post exercise is consistent throughout other research as well.
Any form of exercise has the potential to create that “runner’s high,” as long as you are engaging that fight-or-flight response by increasing your heart rate. But how can you be sure you’re exercising safely? Where can you turn to find the right combination of exercises for your needs?
The answer is simpler than you think.
Physical Therapists Are Available For More than Injury Recovery
It doesn’t matter if your go-to exercise is a brisk walk, a long bike ride, or hitting the weight room. Physical activity can make you feel good from the inside-out. You just need to get moving.
Instead of trying to come up with an exercise plan on your own, why not turn to the professionals? Reaching out to a nearby physical therapist is a great first choice, and you should consider it.
One option for defining a mood-changing exercise program is ReQuest Physical Therapy. These professionals work with patients to find the best methods for steadily increasing exercise levels over time. This type of program is suitable for people with varying levels of health – physical therapists can (and will) help you make the best choices for your specific needs.
Want to consider all options?
Finding a physical therapy clinic near you is as simple as using the BetterPT clinic location tool or mobile app. This simple solution makes it possible to consult with a capable physical therapist, describe your lifestyle and goals, and begin to focus on the exercise and mood connection.
Get active. Connect with someone that knows exactly how to help you. Use the knowledge that exercise and mood go hand in hand to make changes in your life today.
ReQuest Physical Therapy consists of two convenient office locations in Gainesville and Tioga. After Joe Cirulli experienced an injury, he founded the business 1986. Unsatisfied with the methods of treatment presented to him, the ReQuest Physical Therapy staff has spent more than three decades improving and implementing the kinds of PT programs they offer patients. Initially focused on correcting lower back and spinal pain, today, these PTs utilize traditional therapy plans along with unique options like Chill Recovery, the MedX Spine Program, and therapeutic massage techniques for improved patient health.
Chang, Y., Alderman, B,L., Chu, C., Wang, C., Song, T., Chen, F. (2017, February 1).
Acute exercise has a general facilitative effect on cognitive function: A combined ERP temporal dynamics and BDNF study. Psychophysiology, 54, 289-300. DOI: 10.1111/psyp.12784
Dadvand, S.S., Arazi, H. (2018). The impact of exercise training in the treatment of drug
addiction. The role of changes in neurotransmitters. Baltic Journal of Sport & Health Sciences, 111(4), 12-22.
Gerber, M., Kalak, N., Lemola, S., Clough, P.J., Puhse, U., Elliot, C., Holsboer
Trachsler, E., Brand, S. (2012, June). Adolescents’ exercise and physical activity are associated with mental toughness. Mental Health and Physical Activity, 5(1), 35-42. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.mhpa.2012.02.004
Phillips, C. (2017, August 8). Brain-derived neurotrophic factor, depression and physical
activity: Making the neuroplastic connection. Neural Plasticity, 2017, 1-17. https://doi.org/10.1155/2017/7260130.
Sharifi, M., Hamedinia, M.R., Hosseini-Kakhak, S.A. (2018). The effect of an exhaustive
aerobic, anaerobic, and resistance exercise on serotonin, beta-endorphin and BDNF in students. Physical Education of Students, 22(5), 272-277. Doi: 10.15561/20755279.2018.0507
Weir, K. (2011, December). The exercise effect. Monitor on Psychology, 42(11), 48.
Retrieved from: https://www.apa.org/monitor/2011/12/exercise