Physical activity has long been known to lessen anxiety and depression, and is commonly prescribed to lessen the symptoms of many mental health conditions. But can exercise actually make you feel happier or more content?
Researchers at the University of Michigan decided to investigate whether exercise increases positive psychological states in the same way it reduces negative mental health. In particular, they assessed which aspects of physical activity are related to happiness, and who is most likely to benefit from exercise’s effects.
To answer this question, they reviewed 23 studies that looked at the effects of physical activity on happiness. The studies included thousands of adults, adolescents, and children. They located 15 observational studies, all of which found exercise and happiness to be related. Another eight studies in which exercise was used as mental health intervention, yielded inconsistent results.
Can exercise make you happier?
The short answer is yes. When it comes to how much exercise is required, in several studies, people were just as happy whether they exercised 150-300 minutes weekly (approximately 3-5 hours), or 300 minutes or more per week. The odds of being happy steadily increased with more activity. This means that even some physical exercise may increase your happiness quotient.
The review showed that these findings hold true for the young and old, healthy and ill. For example, in studies of adolescents, one found that youth who engaged in physical activity at least once per week compared to none had 1.4 times the odds of being happy if they were normal weight, and 1.5 times the odds if they were overweight.
In a second study, teens who were physically active at least twice a week reported significantly higher levels of happiness compared to peers who were active once or less a week. The same held true for college students, with those participating in physical activity having 1.3 times the odds of being happier than sedentary students.
Older adults also showed benefits of being active. One study found that exercise was associated with higher levels of happiness. Another reported that an elderly person’s happiness was directly related to the total minutes of exercise per week with more activity being linked to higher levels of happiness. It’s important to note that happiness was also mediated by an individual’s social functioning and health status.
Several studies also looked at the link between exercise and happiness in individuals with health conditions. Among survivors of ovarian cancer, 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity was significantly associated with happiness. Physical activity was also directly predictive of happiness in children and adolescents with cerebral palsy. Lastly, the number of weekly exercise sessions was slightly associated with happiness among substance users regardless of the level of exercise intensity.
Do exercise interventions work?
In research where exercise was used as an intervention, several studies found individuals in a physical activity groups who engaged in activities such as stretching, balance, or aerobic activity from anywhere from 30-75 minutes, from one to five times per week for anywhere ranging from 7 weeks to a year showed increases in happiness compared to controls. Some studies did not show any effects, however.
The review only examined articles published in English in peer-reviewed journals. Because the number of randomized controlled trials was limited, there was no way to establish causation between happiness and physical activity. Even so, the take home message is, regular physical exercise may help you to feel happier overall.
Zhanjia Zhang, Weiyun Chen. (2018) A Systematic Review of the Relationship Between Physical Activity and Happiness. Journal of Happiness Studies DOI: 10.1007/s10902-018-9976-0