Exercising To Improve Your Mood?

exercise and mood

It’s not really a new thought that a solid workout can help to give you a little boost when you’re feeling overwhelmed or just plain down. You might be surprised, however, to learn exactly how exercise and mood are linked. What’s the science at work here?

Does It Actually Work?

If you’ve been working out regularly for any significant length of time, you’ve likely experienced this particular benefit of exercise. Maybe you were just having a bad, stressful day and felt better after hitting the gym. Or it may have been a more gradual improvement in depression that stretched over weeks or months. Either way, most athletes and regular exercisers can provide some anecdotal evidence for the relationship between exercise and mood improvement.

But there’s also plenty of powerful scientific evidence. An especially fascinating study, conducted in 1999 and published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, followed the well-being of 156 men and women for 16-weeks. All of the subjects had previously been diagnosed with major depression. For the study, the subjects were divided into three groups – one was given Zoloft (a prescription SSRI antidepressant), another group was put on a program of regular exercise while the third used both. At the end of the study, all three groups showed similar improvements. In fact, 60-70 percent of the subjects in each group – even those not taking the drugs – were no longer classified as having major depression. The downside to exercise over medication is that Zoloft seemed to work faster than exercise alone.

It is interesting to note, though, that regular exercise had longer lasting effects than the medication. A follow-up study found that people who stuck with a regular exercise routine were less likely to relapse than those who didn’t – regardless of which group they were originally in.

Similarly exciting research has also been conducted when it comes to reducing anxiety and stress.

What’s Really Going On

As mentioned, we’ve known for a long time that exercise can help to relieve stress and even improve mood and sense of well-being. Turns out, though, that we still don’t really know how this works. For years, the prevailing theory was that exercise causes a spike of endorphins – chemicals that run around your brain controlling everything from feelings of pain to sensations of pleasure – and that this is what improves mood.

It is true that exercise increases endorphin levels in the brain and that these chemicals could help to relieve depression. Scientists have yet to conclusively prove, however, that it’s these endorphins that reduce anxiety. Instead, the new thinking is that a release of norepinephrine helps your brain to respond to stress in a more effect way – reducing it’s overall impact on your mind and body.

And then there’s the fact that exercise provides a healthy distraction from the stresses of life while boosting confidence. All of these factors could also be responsible for – or at least contribute to – the mood-lifting benefits of exercise.


ACE Fitness
National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI)
Harvard Health
American Psychological Association (APA)