Sometimes it’s hard. It’s been a stressful day, the weather is bad, and you have no desire to go for a run. But you always feel better afterwards: more energy, fitter – happier. Exercise doesn’t just make our body stronger. It boosts our mind, too.
Studies confirm it time and time again: people who exercise regularly are happier. Marathon runners, for instance, are less likely to suffer from depression and active students are more content than couch potatoes. In 2018, academics from the universities of Yale and Oxford concluded – after analysing data from 1.2 million Americans – that exercise actually makes people happier than money does.
How is that possible? Why does exercise make people so happy? When we run, dance or work out at the gym, a whole host of biochemical processes take place in our bodies. Happiness hormones, as they’re known, are released and put us in a good mood.
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This messenger substance is released during exercise. The “motivation hormone”, it makes us more alert, provides motivation and puts us in a positive mood. It also triggers a reward effect in the brain – creating a desire to exercise more.
This “feel-good hormone” affects mood, appetite and promotes healthy sleep. It reduces feelings of anxiety in the long term.
The “energy hormone” is the body’s own natural analgesic. It lowers stress and has a mood-boosting effect. Endorphins are released during exercise. They assist with endurance and help us reach peak performance.
But it’s not just hormones that influence our well-being. When we exercise, our metabolism kicks in, stimulating our digestion. Researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles were able to prove that a healthy gut has a positive impact on our mental health – not least because a significant amount of serotonin is produced in the gut.
On a general level, exercise also improves our body image: we have more energy and feel less self-conscious. Plus, exercising outside supports our body’s vitamin D production. And since vitamin D regulates serotonin production, this has a mood-boosting effect too.
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Researchers at the University of Turku in Finland wanted to know whether there were certain types of exercise that made people happier than others. They compared the level of endorphins in the body after an hour of moderate aerobics with that following an hour of high-intensity interval training (HIIT). Those that participated in the HIIT group had significantly more happiness hormones after exercise. Another study found that endurance sports like running, cycling and swimming even helped with severe depression.
Happiness from exercise? Even if we struggle to find the time or motivation sometimes, it’s well worth incorporating exercise into your day-to-day life. Just a ten-minute run can have a positive impact on our mood. And people who opt for weight training will notice positive changes in their body after just a few weeks – another reason to be cheerful. Start small, set yourself goals you can stick to and enjoy the endorphins after doing exercise!
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Sports scientist Joy provided the editorial team with advice and input for this article. Joy Marxer (Master of Science in Sports Rehabilitation and Prevention) works for Helsana health consultation. She supports customers on questions to do with exercise and sports medicine.