Skip to main content
well lived

How Exercise Can Make You Happy

What I learned when I started moving my body regularly.

Woman stretching her arm while on a run on a beach
A young woman with dark curly hair is using mobile phone. Female is smiling while holding smart phone. She is lying on sofa at home.

Join the family!

This is the third article in a series by Kate Rope, an award-winning journalist who specializes in self-care. Please check back each month for more insight and advice on ways to take care of you.

I was—to say the least—not a sporty child. In high school, I ran track only because my best friend was the captain. They put me in the events no one else wanted to do (read: shotput). At the last meet of the season, I was subbed in for an injured runner in the 100-meter dash. I crossed the finish line dead last and looked up to see the bleachers engulfed in laughter. “What were you doing?” my coach cackled.

“Running?” I offered.

Why do I tell you this? In case, like me, you are not one of those people who “has to work out” to feel normal or for whom rigorous or regular exercise is second nature. If you are one of those people, I understand you better now. If you’re not? I hope you read on.

Thirty extra pounds, two babies, and several decades after that humbling track meet, I moved to Atlanta and decided to conduct an experiment in taking care of myself. As part of it I signed up for a local fitness class.

What I discovered changed my life.

With the help of expert trainers and a built-in community, I began looking forward to getting up at 5:30 every morning to work out before my family was even awake. And I discovered that I wanted to do it. Every. Single. Day.

But that was just the beginning.

Your brain on exercise

I started to notice I had a natural high on the days I worked out. I drove around town feeling a gush of love for the plants, the birds, the grocery store clerks. Some days my mood flew so high I wondered if I should taper off the medication I take for anxiety. I didn’t know it, but I was a living case study of what the research says about the effects of exercise. It can alter your neurochemistry just as pharmaceutical medication and illicit drugs do.

“A little bit of exercise is like taking a little bit of Prozac and a little bit of Ritalin,” explains John Ratey, MD, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. “When we start moving, we are firing more nerve cells than in any other human activity. We change the chemical environment of the brain.” Blood and oxygen flow increases, says Dr. Ratey, and our brains release a jackpot of neurotransmitters involved in regulating our emotions and stress responses including norepinephrine, serotonin, and dopamine.

“Exercise is one of those things that works on a cellular level and, over time, can create real changes in mood.”
Nicole Lippman-Barile, PhD

Working out also pumps out endorphins (which Dr. Ratey says act on the same receptors as opioid medications) and endocannabinoids (the parts of the brain that marijuana influences). So, the runner’s high is real and explains my crazy good mood on boot camp days.

Exercise is one of those things that works on a cellular level and, over time, can create real changes in mood,” says Nicole Lippman-Barile, PhD, a clinical psychologist and certified nutritional therapist consultant with Northwell Health Physician Partners CBT Practice in Glen Oaks, New York.

That’s why Dr. Lippman-Barile considers exercise “a must” as part of her treatment plans for clients experiencing conditions such as anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, and social phobia. “Exercise is one of the few things—besides sleep and diet—that we have direct control over,” says Dr. Lippman-Barile. “It doesn’t have to cost anything, and it has these incredible effects on brain chemistry and mood.”

Exercise as a treatment for mental health disorders

Dr. Lippman-Barile isn’t the first healthcare practitioner to recommend exercise to patients. Back in 300 BC, in the first medical textbook, Hippocrates recommended “long walks” as a treatment for people who felt depressed, says Dr. Ratey. “If they came back and they were still depressed, he sent them out again.” More than two millennia later, science is validating Hippocrates’ approach.

“There are at least 12 studies that show that exercise is as good as antidepressants in treating depression.”
John Ratey, MD

“There’s a ton of research out now that says that exercise is one of the most effective means of decreasing stress, anxiety, and depression,” says Kate Hays, PhD, a psychotherapist and performance coach in Toronto, Canada. In fact, research shows that moving your body can be as effective in treating depression and anxiety as medication or psychotherapy. “There are at least 12 studies that show that exercise is as good as antidepressants in treating depression,” adds Dr. Ratey. Exercise can also be added to a treatment plan when medication or therapy alone is not alleviating someone’s symptoms.

That said, working out is not a replacement for medication or therapy when needed. “There are some people who absolutely need to be on medicine,” says Dr. Ratey. “Depression is multifactorial,” which means treatment often involves several approaches. In fact, treatment with medication or psychotherapy can sometimes help people begin to feel well enough to add in exercise, when it might have felt impossible to do so before.

Exercise as a confidence booster

About a year after I joined my fitness camp, my family and I went to a resort that featured a large floating climbing structure in the middle of a lake. My older daughter and I swam out to it and began to climb up and over the inflatable obstacles, sometimes slipping off and falling into the water where we would have to use our upper arm strength to pull ourselves back on. I have never felt stronger than I did that day, repeatedly rescuing myself from the depths with a speed and agility that matched my 9-year-old daughter (who, I should mention, does swim team). Experts say the sense of mastery I experienced in the middle of the lake is a key part of the emotional benefits of exercise.

But you don’t have to conquer a water-bound flotilla to experience it. “When people start exercising regularly, they often start feeling more confident, and happy in the knowledge that they have established a new habit for themselves,” confirms Dr. Lippman-Barile.

“That’s not to say that I always do the right thing, but noticing the effects of my choices makes it easier to make healthier ones.”

Exercise as a gateway to a healthier life

Exercise can also add other positive benefits to your life. “If you’re physically active, you are probably going to improve your sleep which is then going to have a major impact on how you think and feel,” says Dr. Hays. I can definitely say that my focus group of one has found that daily exercise and a 5:30am wake time lead to a much earlier and consistent bedtime and falling asleep faster.

Moving my body has also led to an increased awareness of what makes it feel good (working out, getting sleep, eating more whole foods) and what makes it feel bad (sitting for too long, being tired, eating junk). That’s not to say that I always do the right thing, but noticing the effects of my choices makes it easier to make healthier ones. “There is a kind of subtle change toward foods that are healthier without necessarily saying I need to eat healthier foods,” says Dr. Hays. “It just becomes part of body awareness and tuning in to what your body needs right now.” (Note: According to my research, Girl Scout cookies are a proven exception to this.)

Exercise as a means to mindfulness

By necessity, most physical activity requires you to pay attention to the here and now—whether it’s watching the scenery on a walk, trying not to fall off a treadmill, or following the steps in a Zumba class. “You kind of have to focus on what you’re doing in the present moment,” says Dr. Lippman-Barile. There is not a lot of opportunity to “ruminate or focus on negative thoughts,” like, say, obsessing about the curt email you sent before leaving the office. “It’s a really nice practice in connecting our mind and body while also training our mind to focus on one thing in one moment,” says Dr. Lippman-Barile. So, that’s a twofer—exercise and mindfulness all in one!

How to start and stick with it

You don’t have to train for a marathon (or even a 5K) or sign up for cycling classes. What matters is finding something you might like and discovering the value of it.

“Motivation doesn’t occur because somebody else says ‘Do this,’” says Dr. Hays. “Motivation occurs because a person has internal evidence that making this change really makes a difference.” The simplest way to do that is to track your mood before and after you move your body.

Whatever you decide to start with—a walk around the block, a jog in a local park, a class at the YMCA—rate your mood on a scale of one to 10 before you begin your activity and jot it down on a piece of paper, in a journal, or on your phone. When you’ve finished, do the same. It should become clear pretty quickly the benefit you are getting. And, if it doesn’t? Try a different form of exercise.

Unlike other kinds of metrics—weight loss, for instance—you should be able to see some progress in your mood right away, which is one of the best ways to stay motivated. “You’re a much better person on the day you exercise. You get turned on to life,” says Dr. Ratey.

Next Steps and Useful Resources

Do you want to see more articles on a similar topic?

Thanks for your input!

Published May 7th, 2019
A young woman with dark curly hair is using mobile phone. Female is smiling while holding smart phone. She is lying on sofa at home.

Join the family!