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Exercise and Its Effect on Mood

Recently, I was having a conversation with a friend about running, and the conversation turned to why we run.   Of course we talked about health, fitness, and longevity - then the conversation turned to the more mental aspects of running, and exercise in general.  After some conversation, we both agreed that exercise just makes us feel better -  and it got me thinking more about the “why”.

Exercise has long been proven to have a positive affect on mood, a contradictory effect on depression, and a lasting affect on self-image.  Individuals who have a healthy dedication to regular exercise experience significant attitude and behavior change (1), and these changes stick around (2).

Most researchers attribute the positive effects of exercise on mood to the endorphins produced during exercise.  Endorphins are the “natural dopamine” or natural opiate-like hormones created by the central nervous system and pituitary gland that wash over the brain’s pleasure sensors in response to certain stimuli, such as stress, fear, or pain (or sex - but that’s another topic).   Endorphins are clearly linked to the “runner’s high”, and the rush of pleasure one feels immediately after exercise.  

So - we understand that we feel better, and our mood is more positive right after exercise.  Is that it?  Pleasure sensors and physiological changes alone don’t fully explain the affect of exercise on mood, and why researchers find lasting effects on behavior and attitude.  There are also psychological impacts of self-efficacy (the strength of belief in one’s own success), and cognitive dissonance (when one is confronted with new information - “I just completed some exercise” - that contradicts existing attitudes or beliefs - “I’m worthless, I can’t do anything”) (3). 

What’s especially interesting to me is the research that suggests the effects of exercise on mood are greater for sufferers of moderate or even severe depression than for those without those diagnoses (4).  It seems that while both meditation and exercise have a similar effect on the negative measures of depression (distress, confusion, tension, fatigue, and anger), only exercise has an effect on the positive measures (well-being and vigor) (5).

It’s been my experience that exercise, when taken as a part of a well-balanced life routine, has a hugely positive impact on psyche, mood, and overall happiness.  During my counseling sessions, I encourage each of my clients to embrace some form of regular exercise - to the best of their particular abilities, and with or without participation of family members or life partners (the subject of another post).  Few return and describe negative experiences - the vast majority experience some positive effect.   

What’s your perspective?  Has exercise had a positive or negative affect on your mood or well-being?  I’d love to know.


(1) Impact of Health, Fitness, and Physical Activity Courses on the Attitudes and Behaviors of College Students - Dale DeVoe, Cathy Kennedy, Lynda Ransdell, Brigitte Pirson, Wendy DeYoung, Karen Casey

(2) Blumenthal - Psychosomatic Medicine, 2007

(3) Guzlkowska, M.    Psychiatr Pol. 2004 Jul-Aug;38(4): 611-20.

Effects of exercise on anxiety, depression and mood.[Article in Polish]

(4) J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2001 Dec;41(4):539-45.

The effects of exercise on mood changes: the moderating effect of depressed mood.

Lane AM1, Lovejoy DJ.

(5) Effects of Acute Exercise on Mood and Well-Being in Patients with Major Depressive Disorder - John B. Bartholomew, David Morrison, Joseph T. CiccoloDisclosures - Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2005;37(12):2032-2037.

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