Can Running Make You Happier and Smarter? Research on the Benefits of Exercise
September 17, 2014
people running showing benefits of exercise, including happierPhoto Credit: Kevin Dooley

We all know that exercise is important. But, for a lot of us, working out enough can be a challenge: only about half of us engage in the CDC’s recommended amount of aerobic activity (for healthy adults, at least 2 and a half hours a week of activities such as brisk walking, or at least 75 minutes a week of activities such as running). However, you might be surprised to learn that engaging in exercise can have more benefits beyond just improving your physical health or losing weight: exercise actually leads to changes in the brain! Below, I’ll explain two ways that exercise can improve our mental well-being and offer some advice for how to increase the amount that you exercise.

Does exercise improve mental health? We’ve all heard anecdotes of the “runner’s high” that some people get after exercising. However, is there scientific evidence to back up this claim? Numerous studies (some of which have used thousands of research participants) have found that there is a correlation between exercise and mental health. But does working out actually cause better mental health? Or is it just that happier people are better at motivating themselves to exercise?

It turns out that exercise actually does lead to increases in mood, and that it can even reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression. A recent review of the research literature suggests that even a single exercise session can lead to a short-term boost in mood. Studies that track participants across time have found that people who exercise regularly have a lower risk of developing depression. Additionally, exercise reduces anxiety, though some research suggests that aerobic exercise (e.g. running) is more effective than anaerobic exercise (e.g. lifting weights).

Why does exercise have these effects? There are likely to be many reasons, but one intriguing finding is that exercise can actually change the levels of different chemicals in our brain. In particular, exercise has been found to increase levels of serotonin (a key neurotransmitter for regulating mood) and endorphins (our body’s natural painkillers).

At the same time, it’s also the case that depression can lead to low levels of dopamine, which can reduce motivation and make it harder for people to exercise. If you are interested in learning more about the effects of depression on motivation (as well as some ways to increase motivation), you can read more about this here.

Does exercise help us think better? During my senior year of college, I took up running, and I soon discovered that it was one of the best ways to recharge my brain during finals week. So I wasn’t too surprised to learn that exercise can help us do better on cognitive tasks, but I was amazed to learn that exercise can actually lead to changes in our brain that might help us process and remember information better.

A recent article reviewed over 100 studies on exercise and cognition, and found that exercise does have an effect on cognitive functioning. In particular, exercise can improve performance on things such as working memory, multitasking, and planning actions. Researchers have even found that these benefits may be due to changes in the brain. For example, one study found that people who were more physically fit had a larger volume of gray matter in a brain region known as the prefrontal cortex (a key brain region for making decisions and controlling behavior). Studies of animals have found that exercise can promote the growth and survival of cells in the hippocampus, a brain region that is important for memory.

How to Exercise More. If you’ve decided that you want to work out more, how should you actually go about it? I’ll be the first to admit that it can sometimes be hard to stick to exercise goals: after a long day of work, it’s tempting to crash on the couch instead of going out and exercising. One way of helping yourself to stick to exercise goals is to form what psychologists call implementation intentions. By forming an implementation intention, you decide, “Whenever I am in X situation, I will engage in Y behavior.” Examples of implementation intentions for exercise might be, “When I leave work, I will drive to my gym and go to the 6PM yoga class” or, “After I eat breakfast, I’ll go for a brisk walk around the block.” By deciding in advance how and when we will complete a goal, we’re more likely to stick to our plans. Additionally, another great way to increase the amount that you exercise is to incorporate it into your daily routine. Walk to work or school (or, if you have kids, walk them to school instead of driving). Making workouts social (going for a hike or bike ride with friends or family) is another great way to stick to your exercise plan. Personally, I’ve found that since adopting a dog I’ve become much better about exercising daily—even if I don’t have time to go running, I still have to take my dog for a quick walk around the neighborhood. Finally, if you really think you don’t have enough time, you can always try the 7-minute workout, an exercise routine developed to get the best results from just a short exercise session.

In addition to the well-known benefits of exercise, such as weight loss and improved physical health, exercise can have significant benefits on our mental health and our ability to think through difficult tasks. Of course, exercise isn’t a panacea: if you think you might have symptoms of depression or anxiety, it’s important to talk to your doctor about developing a treatment plan, rather than trying to treat mental health concerns through exercise alone. Additionally, it’s possible to have too much of a good thing: excessive exercise can be harmful and even cause injury. However, on the whole, exercise has many benefits and a relatively low risk of side effects. One researcher studying the benefits of exercise sums it up well: “On the whole, exercise appears to be a neglected intervention in mental health care.” The research that has been done on the cognitive benefits of exercise suggests that when we exercise our bodies, we may be exercising our minds as well.

Further Reading:

Andreas Strohle: Physical Activity, Exercise, Depression and Anxiety Disorders

Robert Yeung: The Acute Effects of Exercise on Mood State

P. Callaghan: Exercise: A Neglected Intervention in Mental Health Care?

Charles Hillman: Be Smart, Exercise Your Heart: Exercise Effects on Brain and Cognition

Peter Gollwitzer: Implementation Intentions

The Scientific 7-Minute Workout

About this Contributor: Elizabeth Hopper is a PhD candidate in Social Psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara.  Prior to attending UCSB, she received her BA in Psychology and Peace & Conflict Studies from UC Berkeley and worked in a research lab at UC San Francisco studying health psychology.  Her research interests include positive emotions, close relationships, coping, and health.  Outside of the research lab, Elizabeth can often be found going to yoga class, teaching her puppy new tricks, and working on her creative writing.

  1. Great post outlining the researched benefits of exercise – hopefully this powerful data can serve as motivation for people who are having difficulty exercising on a regular basis.

    As a mental health clinician, I agree that exercise is an underutilized intervention, but like you said, it’s important to see it as one potentially beneficial part of a treatment plan, depending on the factors contributing to the MH problem.

    I also like your practical recommendations for how to exercise more, including reference to interval training/short workouts (e.g., 7 minute workout) – as I’m a big believer in “doing something is better than nothing.”

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