Can exercise make you happier?

Dr. Scott Lear explores the link between mental health and physical activity.
Two women laugh while holding each other and flexing their arms.

More research is showing the importance of exercise in preventing and treating mental health conditions like depression and anxiety. Even if you don’t have any serious conditions, regular physical activity can benefit both mind and body. 

Exercise can boost your mood — fast 

Many people who exercise regularly will tell you that their mood improves almost instantly after the session. This boost in mood can happen during or shortly after an exercise session and sometimes has the power to extend till the next day. You don’t even have to exercise for a long time – people report feeling happier after just ten minutes of activity

Even greater benefits were observed in people who exercised 45 minutes or more for three or more days a week, according to a study conducted in more than 1.2 million adults. Over time, this can reduce the chances of depression and anxiety; while people with chronic diseases who exercise cut their chances of being hospitalized in half. 

The type of activity doesn’t matter as much — it could be cycling, walking, running, or even a team sport. Even active household chores can reduce the chances for depression. People also reported greater enjoyment during moderate intensity exercise compared to high intensity, and greater enjoyment after interval-type exercise (like dancing or HIIT) compared to continuous (jogging).

Exercise can treat chronic illness overtime

Numerous studies indicate exercise can be an effective treatment for people with existing depression and other mental illnesses. In people with major depressive disorder, exercise had a large effect at reducing symptoms of depression. And the benefits of exercise were reported in under four weeks – less than the time for most antidepressant medications to work. 

While exercise is beneficial at all levels of intensity, it appears higher intensity exercise could be more effective than low intensity. And even after 30 minutes of exercise, people with depression reported feeling better. And it’s not just aerobic exercise that’s beneficial, strength training can also reduce symptoms in people with depression. And exercise is as effective as antidepressants for non-severe depression. Exercise has also been found to be beneficial in people with clinical anxiety and schizophrenia. This has led to many guidelines recommending exercise as a treatment for depression.

Why exercise works

A single session of exercise can improve your mood, strengthen memory and boost creativity. In people with depression, just 30 minutes of exercise was enough to improve their mood.

While the exact science behind exercise reducing depression isn’t fully known, it may have to do with changes in hormones and the brain. When you exercise, your body releases endorphins and endocannabinoids. Endorphins are the feel-good hormones that reduce pain or discomfort associated with activity, while endocannabinoids work on the same system affected by marijuana to reduce pain and improve mood.

Exercise also increases the level of neurotrophins in the brain that’s responsible for growth and maintenance of nerves. This results in improved learning, recollection and mood. In addition, physical activity improves the quality of sleep which indirectly helps you feel better the next day.

With all the benefits of exercise on mental health, it’s important to understand that people with mental health conditions may find simple tasks challenging. In such cases, taking an antidepressant or other medication may be easier than exercising. But for others, exercise is a simple and cost-saving activity to maintain and improve your mental health. 


About the author

Scott Lear

Dr. Scott Lear

Dr. Scott Lear is a leading researcher in the prevention and management of heart disease. He holds the Pfizer/Heart and Stroke Foundation Chair in Cardiovascular Prevention Research at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver, and he is a professor in the faculty of health sciences and the department of biomedical physiology and kinesiology at Simon Fraser University. Dr. Lear also lives with heart disease himself. Follow his blog at