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Money can’t Buy you Happiness, but Exercise Can

There are a lot of things money can buy, but happiness isn’t one of them. Don’t fret though, you’re in luck. There’s a cost-free path to being happy and it’s through exercise. Exercise is so effective at improving your mood it might as well be a drug. In fact the way in which exercise makes…

There are a lot of things money can buy, but happiness isn’t one of them. Don’t fret though, you’re in luck. There’s a cost-free path to being happy and it’s through exercise.

Exercise is so effective at improving your mood it might as well be a drug. In fact the way in which exercise makes you happy is through the same pathways as a number of narcotics. It’s not called a runner’s high for nothing.

There are numerous accounts of people feeling better both during and after exercise. This has been reported so frequently researchers started to look into a biological reason for this euphoria. This work pointed to the role of the endorphin and endocannabinoid hormones.


The Biology of Feeling Good

Endorphins are your body’s natural opioids; the feel good hormones that block out pain. When you exercise your body releases endorphins. It’s believed your body does this to help reduce any pain or discomfort associated with the activity. And to get the greatest benefit of that endorphin rush, moderate intensity activity is better than high intensity activity. While both intensity levels are associated an endorphin release, the feelings of happiness tend to be higher following moderate intensity activity.

Endocannabinoids work on the same system affected by marijuana, and also help reduce pain and improve mood. Similar to endorphins, exercise leads to an increase in endocannabinoids. And well-conducted studies on mice running on a treadmill have demonstrated this increase in endocannabinoids is linked to a reduction in anxiety.

But you don’t have to be a runner (or a mouse) to get the runner’s high. Singing and cycling have been shown to increase endocannabinoids and improve mood. And you can get this release of endocannabinoids even at low levels of activity.

happy- small

With all these natural drugs circulating in your body, it’s hard not to feel good. And it doesn’t take much. As little as ten minutes can lead to happiness, and this feeling of happiness even extends into the next day. Over time you’ll find you have less down days. People who exercised at least once in the past month had a day and a half less emotionally distressing days over that same time period compared to people who didn’t exercise.

Exercise can Help you Destress

When you’re stressed, your adrenaline gets going, your heart rate goes up, muscles tighten and you feel anxious. This is your body’s normal response to stress. The so called fight or flight mechanism.

caveman running

In time gone by, this response served us well; we would either run away from the threat or fight it. Today, though, it doesn’t always work that way. Most of our stresses are the type we can’t run away from or fight head-on (such as the person cutting you off on the road or your boss placing a demanding deadline on you).

Exercise can help. By being active, you’re essentially using that adrenaline as if you were either running away or fighting your threat head-on, but in a safe and controlled way. Exercise does this in a number of ways, first it removes you from the stress. Whether getting you out of the office or out from the chaos of life your mind gets to focus on something else. Second, it essentially burns off adrenaline, reducing it, along with reducing another stress hormone, cortisol. Together, this helps reset your body and mind.

While exercise won’t prevent you from ever encountering stress (and some stress is actually good for us), it will help you better manage and even reduce it. And with regular exercise you can decrease your chances of getting depression.

With the endorphins and endocannabinoids being released making you feel happy and relieving your stress, exercise is the one fix you can do without worry.

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7 responses to “Money can’t Buy you Happiness, but Exercise Can”

  1. Are there any studies about physically active persons who experience depression? I’ve experienced depression during times in my life when I was younger and very physically active.

    I’m middle aged now. I have taken antidepressants on and off during my adult life. During the times I am physically active, exercise takes the edge off, but the depression is still there.

    1. Hi Kate
      Sorry to hear that. There are quite a few studies in which exercise is used to treat people with depression and anxiety. Here is recent one focused on resident patients:

      I’m not aware of any studies that would link physical activity to lead to depression (and I looked quite a bit). They all indicate it helps as you mentioned by saying it takes the edge off.

      Some of the studies suggest social physical activities are more helpful, but I think that would depend on the person.

      Of course exercise is one of a number of therapies and a combination of different things (motivational interviewing, medications) may be needed in some cases.


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