Ever noticed a difference in your mood after starting an exercise program? It’s a truth almost universally acknowledged that physical activity can alleviate depression and anxiety. What’s less well understood is why.
Scientists are still trying to figure out exactly how moving the body benefits mood and the brain, although chemistry provides some clues. We do know, for example, that exercise releases endorphins, feel-good chemicals responsible for producing what’s often referred to as “runner’s high.” According to a small 2019 study of women ages 50 and over, even a small amount of lower-intensity exercise — a brisk 15-minute walk, at a 16-minute mile pace — spurs the release of proteins that affect the production of serotonin, a chemical thought to help regulate mood. Another small study showed that relatively short bouts of intense exercise (sessions of roughly 11 to 20 minutes) increased levels of glutamate and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain, two other chemicals thought to play a role in depression.
But when it comes to how exercise improves mental health, brain chemistry is just one piece of the puzzle. It turns out where you exercise and how much you do may influence the mood benefits you get from moving, too. The best part of all? Even a little exercise can go a long way toward relieving stress, anxiety, and depression. Read on to learn about three surprising ways exercise can lift your spirits, and how to reap the rewards yourself.
Mood booster: Exercising outside
How it helps: A 2011 review of studies found that compared with exercising indoors, working out in natural environments was associated with greater feelings of revitalization, increased energy, and positive engagement, together with decreases in tension, confusion, anger, and depression. The exercisers also reported greater enjoyment and satisfaction with the outdoor activity, and said they were more likely to repeat it at a later date, according to the study. (By contrast, the results also indicated that feelings of calmness may decrease after outdoor exercise. The study’s authors acknowledged more and better research on the topic should be done.) Meanwhile, another review, this one from 2013, found that exercise in the great outdoors “may be a useful natural medicine,” with the authors noting that outdoor natural environments “may provide some of the best all-round health benefits.” Translation? Get thee outside!
Mood booster: Working out with a buddy
How it helps: A 2019 study published in the Lancet Psychiatry that analyzed survey data from 1.2 million adults found that in every category — including age, gender, and income level — people who exercised reported fewer days of bad mental health in the past month than those who didn’t. Those who played team sports reported the fewest bad mental health days of all. This could have something to do with the perception that social exercise is more fun, easier, and more rewarding, says Kathleen McIntyre LCSW, a Columbia University instructor and the lead author on a different study about exercise and depression.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why exercising with friends works, but studies suggest that the good-for-you actions of our friends and family seem to rub off on us. One 2020 study found that people who copied the exercise strategies of people they knew spent significantly more time exercising (55.8 more minutes per week, on average) than people who weren’t given any exercise strategy, and were also more motivated to work out.
McIntyre’s own study set out to find out how three months of aerobic exercise affected subjects on measures of depression, anxiety, hostility, and anger. In the study, participants were given set heart rate targets to meet. One surprising observation that wasn’t published in the final paper — and one McIntyre wants to investigate further — was that even participants who didn’t hit the fitness targets reported a mood boost. This, McIntyre suspects, may be because a “coach” (actually a research assistant) called participants who weren’t reaching their goals to trouble-shoot. “There was this sense of someone looking out for you,” says McIntyre. “There’s a mood component we can’t necessarily tease out, but we know that exercise is easier, fun, and more rewarding when you’re connected to others for accountability and support.”
While it may not be possible to play team sports at the moment (or maybe you just don’t enjoy them), McIntyre says you can still reap the benefits of buddied-up exercise, whether it’s a masked-up game of tennis, or taking a Zoom group exercise class from your separate living rooms. “I have some friends doing a pushup competition,” McIntyre says, “and some other friends trying to get to the end of the Insanity videos.”
Mood booster: Doing any exercise at all — really!
How it helps: A 2019 study published in JAMA Psychiatry found that more activity was better when it came to preventing depression, but that some was better than none. The study analyzed genetic data from some 91,000 participants who wore motion-detecting sensors called accelerometers on their wrists. Karmel Choi PhD, the study’s lead author and a research fellow at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said the authors’ rough calculations were that replacing sitting within a 24-hour period with 15 minutes of a heart-pumping activity like running — or with either an hour of moderately vigorous activity (gardening or brisk walking), or some combination of vigorous, moderate, and light activity (think five minutes of running, a half hour of brisk walking, plus an hour of standing) — is enough to produce the average increase in accelerometer data that was linked to lower depression.
One key finding? Doing exclusively vigorous exercise isn’t necessary to ward off depression. This, Choi said, may be because “biological or psychological mechanisms that could be activated by gentle movement — such as reduced inflammation, or increased sense of control and life engagement — may be at play.”
What does it all mean? As has been written on many an inspirational mug or magnet, “Don’t let perfection be the enemy of good.” Any amount of exercise can have psychological benefits, says Michele Olson, PhD, FACSM, CSCS, a professor of sport science at Huntingdon College in Montgomery, AL, and a fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine, thanks to the principle of distraction. “Working out puts your attention on something else,” Olson says, “thus distracting you from what is weighing on your psyche.” McIntyre adds that completing even a gentle 10-minute yoga video can turn your day around because of the self-esteem boost. “The fact that you’ve done it,” she says, “is going to have an impact on how you feel about yourself.”
The bottom line
After you work out, benefits can linger for literally weeks. In McIntyre’s study, participants who had been exercising moderately to vigorously four times a week were tested again for depression and hostility after not having exercised for a month and still scored better than they did when they started the study. When it comes to mood, says McIntyre, scrap the thought that exercise has to be all or nothing. Every little bit helps.