Exercise your way to happiness

In this first of a three part series, we explore how being happier, more balanced and better at life begins with you. In this article we talk about the role of exercise as a mood enhancer. Read part two here: Eat your way to happiness.


A pair of running shoes. A well-stocked fridge. Your bedroom.

What do these three things have in common? One the face of it, not much, but the magic happens when you combine them.

We’re talking about the power of exercise, good food and sleep to drastically improve your mood or even help with tackling depression. If you don’t suffer from mood problems, exercise provides a host of other benefits, like improving heart health, warding off neuro-degenerative disease and improving longevity.

For many people, addressing the ongoing problem of low mood will require visiting the doctor or seeking psychological support from a professional and this forms the key part of a successful treatment plan.

There’s a growing body of scientific evidence showing that other treatments can complement or enhance this approach, or even provide meaningful relief on their own. This is where your runners come in. (We’ll examine sleep and quality nutrition in the next couple of weeks.)

The idea of exercising for a better mood is not a new one. Most of us have experienced a sense of wellbeing after going for a bike ride or doing a session at the gym. Better still, it’s simple, free and available right now.

The type of exercise you do to improve mood actually doesn’t matter. In a systematic review of over 500,000 people researchers found any type of exercise increased happiness scores for most people.

Here are five ways the body rewards exercise

1. Exercise helps your body make more serotonin which supports your mood. When you exercise you raise the availability of tryptophan to be taken up into your brain to make serotonin. Tryptophan can go down one of two paths it can make kynurenine, which goes on to create a neurotoxic substance called quinolinic acid that contributes to feeling depressed or down a path that makes serotonin. Exercise channels it down the path to raise your better mood.

2. Individuals with low-grade, ongoing inflammation in their body will be more prone to depression. That inflammation also leads to quinolinic acid production. Regular exercise has an anti-inflammatory effect meaning it helps reduce the production of quinolinic acid.

Translation: if you exercise, there are lots of good chemical reactions happening in your body which help you to feel good.

3. Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is something made in our brains that helps our brain regenerate. It plays a big role in mood, thinking, decision making, memory and learning. Exercise raises BDNF and it helps to sharpen your thinking and improve your mood.

4. If you have ever had that euphoric feeling after a workout or run you can know that this is because your body is producing an endocannabinoid called anandamide. Exercise activates the endocannabinoid system and for a good hour after exercise you can seize on the feel good vibes.

5. Beta endorphin levels also rise in the brain during exercise and contribute to the feel good feeling you experience post exercise. The more vigorous and cardiovascular the exercise the better for getting this happening.

Where does that leave us?

You might not know which of those factors are hampering your hindering your happiness. It might be one or many. Regularly engaging in exercise that you enjoy that also delivers steady, mood-elevating benefits could be a major contributor to improving your mood.

It’s rewarding when you know you can make a meaningful change in your mood without requiring a drug to do so.