We know exercising is good for us, and improving heart health and lowered rates of depression are just a few of the many reasons we make fitness a regular part of our lives. One of the most impactful benefits is the way exercise makes us happier.
Whether you run or lift weights, there are many factors at play that make you a happier person. We turned to the pros and scoured numerous studies to find out what those factors are. Keep reading to find out where that post-workout happiness comes from and how you can soak up even more of it.
1. Exercising boosts self-efficacy
Self-efficacy refers to the belief in your own ability to succeed in a specific situation or accomplish a task. Some health professionals hypothesize that working out boosts our self-efficacy, which reduces anxiety, leading to greater happiness. Frontiers in Psychiatry explains below:
“Individuals who trust their ability to manage potential threats (high self-efficacy) are not plagued by thoughts of worry and experience lower levels of anxiety arousal… It has been debated that exercise can increase self-efficacy by supplying experiences of successfully coping with the stress of exercising (Petruzzello et al., 1991). As fitness improves, the individual receives feedback of greater endurance, less pain, greater duration capabilities, etc. As a result, self-efficacy should increase (Petruzzello et al., 1991).”
Ultimately, a consistent commitment to fitness leads to greater confidence in your abilities, which can reduce anxiety and stress.
2. Working out fosters better sleep
A 2016 report from the CDC found that one-third of Americans are not getting the recommended 7 hours of sleep each night. And that makes us a very unhappy bunch. You know the mornings when you haven’t clocked a full night of shut-eye—you’re irritable, cranky, anxious and a lot more vulnerable to stress. When all is said and done, without enough sleep you’re less happy.
Exercise, however, helps you sleep better, and what’s more, “as little as 10 minutes of aerobic exercise, such as walking or cycling, can dramatically improve the quality of your nighttime sleep, especially when done on a regular basis,” according to Sleep.org.
The better you sleep, the happier and less anxious you’re likely to be, making exercise one of the best ways to get more shut eye and boost happiness.
3. Fitness is a form of self-care
Any form of self-care is valuable, allowing you to take a mental break and make time for yourself. Exercise is one of the best ways to take care of yourself, and this is one of the many reasons why it makes us happier.
“Whenever we do anything to take care of ourselves (mentally, spiritually, physically), it directly correlates to self-esteem. I’m taking care of myself, therefore I CARE about myself. I am doing something good for me. I’m important. I’m worth it. When we do things to improve self-esteem, it affects our overall happiness,” says Marissa Geraci, Licensed Medical Health Therapist.
If you already have a self-care regimen, consider how fitness fits into that equation. Moderate exercise should be just as important as your weekly massage or meditation session.
4. It connects you with other people
Even if you work out alone, exercise makes it easier to meet new people, or spend extra time with those you love the most, which April Oury, founder of BodyGears Physical Therapy, suggests is one reason why it makes us happier:
“As social creatures, when you exercise again, you tend to attract others who want to do that as well. As a physical therapist, this is one of the biggest ways that I see people getting happier through exercise. It reconnects them with activities and therefore people that they love to be with.”
Click here to find out the top 5 reasons you need a workout buddy.
So, how can you soak up the most happiness from exercise?
You certainly don’t have to run 10 miles or work out for hours. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 30 to 60 minutes of exercise, 3 to 5 times a week is all you need to reap the mental health benefits. What’s more: just 20 minutes of exercise can have lasting effects of at least 12 hours.
So, instead of focusing on time, boost your happiness levels with the following ideas.
Do the exercise you love: “If you find something you love doing, it won’t feel like a chore. And, when you do an activity you love that gets your adrenaline going you boost things like Serotonin, Dopamine, Norepinephrine—the ‘feel good,’ ‘mood boosting’ chemicals that some people take antidepressants to try to cultivate more of,” says Geraci.
Get fit with friends and family: As Oury suggests, we are social creatures and being able to stay active with the people we love is one reason why it boosts our happiness. To up your happy level, make it a point to work out with friends and family. Take a Saturday morning run with your spouse or a post-dinner walk with your best friend. When you’re done, you’ll feel mentally and physically refreshed. If you don’t have any friends that like to run or exercise, join a MeetUp group or a small gym, where you’re likely to meet many like-minded individuals.
Get active in nature: “If you can, try to exercise outside while surrounded by nature, rather than in stressful and crowded urban settings,” suggests Rebecca Lee, RN and founder of Remedies for Me. Try this 30-minute playground workout at your local park, trail running, or just take your usual body weight routine to your backyard.
Take a run: Runners of all sizes, ages and levels have claimed to experience that “runner’s high.” While much of what we discussed above affects their post-run happiness, running itself tends to be meditative, allowing you to clear your mind and ultimately, end the run happier than when you started. As Monte Davis said in The Joy of Running, “It’s hard to run and feel sorry for yourself at the same time.”
Find balance: While exercising can make you happier, working out too much has the opposite effect. With a lack of balance between exercise and rest, our bodies become worn out, which fitness professionals call burnout. When this happens, you’re mentally and physically exhausted, reducing your desire to train and increasing stress.
Find a healthy balance in your training schedule, making time for intense cardio and weightlifting, in addition low-intensity exercise like yoga, hiking and walking.
Exercise your way to a happier YOU
Exercise is just one of the many ways to reach a happier mental state, and luckily, you don’t have to be a professional athlete to reap the benefits. Instead, find a balance in your training, make time for fitness outside and do the activities you love. When you do that, you’ll find happiness may be a lot easier to come by.