If you’ve ever struggled with your stress levels (which, let’s face it, we all have), you’ve probably been given some advice surrounding taking up running, engaging in regular exercise or even just going for a walk, due to the effects of exercise on mood. It’s a pretty common point of discussion in the fitness community, as lots of people (and you may be one of them) use exercise as a stress release, but with this advice being so common, we’ve been having a think about why, and how. We want to know the science behind this link.
This link is so strong, in fact, that in a recent survey we released here at Innermost, 95.6% of respondents said that exercise positively affected their mental health.
We want answers: what are the effects of exercise on mood, why does working out make you happy, and what are these exercise hormones? We’ve done the research so that you don’t have to. Strap in whilst Innermost investigates.
What are the benefits of regular exercise?
Let’s get the basics out the way. As we know, regular exercise is a great way to implement routine into your life, increase your energy, up your stamina and improve your overall health and performance. More specific benefits of regular exercise include improved cardiovascular health, heightened weight loss and great assistance in blood sugar levels.
Aside from all of this, though, exercise techniques such as weight training, cardio and Pilates can have a huge effect on your mood. But why?
Why does exercise improve mood?
The science behind the link between exercise and mental health is pretty simple, actually. When we exercise, feel-good hormones called endorphins are released. These endorphins include serotonin and dopamine, which are often described as happy hormones, and this means that when we engage in aerobic exercise techniques such as running, swimming, skipping and other high-intensity exercises, we begin to feel rushes of happiness. Exercise also leads to exercise-induced processes such as an increased level of blood circulation, and this is integral in the triggering of stress-busting body functions. Exercise is also a key player in reducing harmful immune system chemicals that have been proven to make depression worse.
That link makes a bit more sense now, right?
These hormones are released by the pituitary gland in the brain, which stimulates receptors in your body, reducing feelings of anxiousness, depression and stress. Both hormones play different roles in the regulation of your mood, so let’s dive in.
The release of serotonin into your blood is hugely important when it comes to regulating your mood. This is because your serotonin levels are pretty influential when it comes to your quality of sleep and hunger levels – all of which have a notable effect on how you feel overall.
Research consistently shows that high and maintained serotonin levels lead to a boost in mood, whilst low levels of serotonin have regularly been linked to increased risk of depression. This research reiterates the importance of maintaining a regular exercise routine to ensure that your serotonin never reduces to these harmful levels.
Dopamine is another happy hormone that is greatly influential in your mood. This hormone is made by the body and plays a vital role in how we experience pleasure, and therefore has a key effect on our mood. Dopamine is even sometimes referred to as the ultimate motivator due to the boost of motivation and happiness that you get from dopamine releases.
The result of the release of these hormones and neurotransmitters during and after exercise clearly explains the link between improved mood and exercise. This link can be so strong, in fact, that athletes and fitness fanatics that engage in aerobic exercise sometimes report experiencing feelings of runner’s high.
What is runners high?
Runner's high is a phenomenon experienced after aerobic exercise (aka, cardio) that has been described ‘as if you’re on top of the world’, and is something that happens when you hit your stride with your workout. You might surprise yourself when it comes to how far you can run or swim, with athletes reporting feelings of weightlessness and euphoria, which of course has excellent mental health benefits.
After athletes have engaged in a long stint of exercise, many report that they feel as if they can continue (even after running miles and miles), citing feelings and health benefits of runners high such as lessened anxiety, easier recovery, reduced pain and elevated mood.
Don’t be fooled – runners high is real. It’s not a myth, we promise. Whilst runners high hasn’t been extensively investigated due to the complex nature of the phenomenon, existing research surrounding runners high has supported the existence of this process.
Aside from a huge boost in your mood, runners high provides a range of other health benefits that you can begin to reap:
- Improved sleep quality
- Increased energy levels
- Great source of stress release
- Reduced cholesterol levels
- Boost in libido
- Increased mental alertness
After feeling the effects of this runners high, many people adopt various techniques to try and induce this feeling due to the outlined benefits, and we can’t really blame them. These techniques include:
- When you want to stop, push yourself to continue
- Ensure you are properly hydrated and fuelled up
- Stay consistent throughout your exercise
- Start slow and increase your speed and intensity
So, overall, it’s clear that exercise is beneficial for maintaining your mental health. Everyone should make a conscious effort to exercise to be able to reap the benefits of exercise and ease any symptoms you are perhaps suffering from.
Does exercise make you happy? Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Whilst exercise is a great way to improve your mood, as we have discovered, it’s important to realise that if you are struggling in particular, please make sure you reach out for help. You’re never alone, and everyone struggles with their mental health: it’s absolutely nothing to be ashamed of.
At Innermost we are huge advocates for taking care of your mental health: it’s just as important as your physical health. You can’t maintain one without the other. We often try and offer advice and guidance in this area, so check out Our Top 8 Mental Health Apps, and get in contact with one (or all) of the below charities to get some expert and informed help and advised when it comes to your mental health:
- Boecker, H., Sprenger, T., Spilker, M. E., Henriksen, G., Koppenhoefer, M., Wagner, K. J., ... & Tolle, T. R. (2008). The runner's high: opioidergic mechanisms in the human brain. Cerebral cortex, 18(11), 2523-2531. Click here.
- Cowen, P. J., & Browning, M. (2015). What Has Serotonin To Do With Depression? World Psychiatry, 14(2), 158. Click here.
- Reiche, E. M. V., Nunes, S. O. V., & Morimoto, H. K. (2004). Stress, depression, the immune system, and cancer. The lancet oncology, 5(10), 617-625. Click here.
- Young, S. N., & Leyton, M. (2002). The role of serotonin in human mood and social interaction: insight from altered tryptophan levels. Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior, 71(4), 857-865. Click here.