The benefits of exercise are extensive. Not only does regular exercise help our bodies physiologically, but it also provides an array of mental and emotional health benefits. Exercise is a resilience tool that can be leveraged to improve positive emotions, mood, self-confidence, and overall sense of well-being. This is especially important following the years of the pandemic where individuals are craving more social connection, happiness, and self-motivation to get back to activities they once enjoyed.Whether you are an avid exerciser already or are just getting started, it can be helpful to understand how physical exercise can improve health and wellbeing, reduce the risk of diseases, fight off negative impacts of stress, and help improve overall happiness.
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Breaking Down How Exercise Peps Us Up
So, what happens when we exercise? When we exercise, blood flow and blood volume increase which means more oxygen is being delivered to our muscles, tissues, and organs including the brain. Increased blood flow to the lungs also allows there to be more oxygen in the blood itself.
This can have a variety of benefits for various systems in our body including the cardiovascular, pulmonary, and respiratory systems. The benefit of this impact on the body systems is that exercise can reduce the risk of a variety of diseases including cardiovascular disease, stroke, diabetes, and more. Additionally, exercise is known as a helpful tool in reducing risk factors for cardiovascular diseases like high blood pressure, obesity, and high cholesterol.
Keeping these numbers in a healthy range is an important preventative strategy against diseases.
In addition to the cardiovascular benefits of exercise, regular resistance training and weight-bearing exercises improve musculoskeletal health, bone health, and body composition. There is an array of health-related benefits from engaging in regular resistance training including but not limited to improvements in blood glucose levels, insulin sensitivity, and blood pressure as well.
Furthermore, improving muscular strength and endurance can help strengthen bone mineral density, which is an important component of skeletal health, and can reduce the risk of health issues like osteoporosis and osteopenia.
Boosting Our Health
Like how the increased blood flow and circulation from exercise enhance physical health, it also helps improve the overall health of the brain which supports mental wellbeing. Increased oxygen-rich blood flow to the brain from regular engagement in moderate exercise can significantly improve various aspects of mental health and reduce the risk of cognitive decline which can contribute to illnesses like Alzheimer’s and Dementia. In addition to the benefit of oxygen-rich blood, when we exercise endorphins, endocannabinoids, and neurotransmitters like Dopamine, Serotonin, brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), Leptin, and Norepinephrine are released.
The release of these brain chemicals can have important implications for mental and emotional well-being. The benefit of this over the long run is that exercise can decrease levels of stress, anxiety, and depression and help improve overall cognitive function. It can also help individuals improve their mood and energy. According to a systemic review conducted in 2019 at the University of Michigan by Zhang and Chen, 27 of the 29 observational studies, and nineteen of the 24 intervention studies found favorable associations between physical activity and psychological well-being.
Although more research on this subject is needed, what this demonstrates is that there is a strong correlation between the impact exercise has on psychological well-being including one’s happiness. Furthermore, according to a 2016 Harvard study published in the Journal Annals of Behavioral Medicine, the benefit of this can be bi-directional. In other words, exercise enhances psychological well-being, and the more that well-being increases from exercise, the more likely individuals will continue to engage in physical activity as well.
This demonstrates that exercise, and the positive emotions that result from exercise, continue to strengthen, and support each other in a synergistic feedback loop. The benefits continue to expand the longer a person consistently engages in exercise.
Improving Emotional and Psychological Well-Being
One of the happiness-boosting benefits of exercise is the reduction of anxiety. Following an exercise session, an individual can often think more clearly, and problem solve more positively. This enhanced cognitive state of mind can continue to reduce rumination and anxious thinking which helps contribute to overall happiness.
Due to the neuroplasticity of the brain, exercise can even improve the function and structure of the brain over time. This shift can change and improve the quality of an individual’s thoughts and have a positive reduction effect on anxious or ruminating thinking patterns. Through repetition, individuals can even rewire the way they think about and respond to stress.
This reduction in anxious thinking and adoption of more adaptive thinking patterns can contribute to an increased sense of happiness and gratitude for situations in one's life. It can even lead to individuals becoming more resilient when it comes to handling stressful situations.
Make It a Team Effort
If you are looking to enhance the happiness-boosting power of exercise even further, you might consider exercising with friends or getting involved with an exercise community. It is part of human nature to desire strong connections with others because humans want to feel that they belong and feel supported. Exercising with friends or a community you feel connected with enhances the happiness-boosting benefit of exercises. This is due to the power of social connections.
Feeling like one belongs as part of a group or community, and having strong social connections, has been shown to have a high correlation with self-reported happiness and well-being according to Psychology Today and the Greater Good Science Center affiliated with Berkley University. People who feel that they have a strong social support system report less anxiety and depression, loneliness, and low self-esteem. Achieving fitness outcomes collectively as a group can also create a sense of shared experience and accomplishment which also has positive mood-boosting impacts.
What this tells us is that exercising with friends or in a supportive community can deepen the feel-good benefits of exercise such as happiness and joy. Furthermore, feeling secure and stable in a group setting can often help affirm an individual’s sense of belonging. This in turn can contribute to their inner self-confidence and motivation to accomplish their goals while living a life of happiness.
Another Key to Happiness: Staying Consistent
Whether it relates to exercising with others or individually, having a consistent exercise routine over time can also improve self-confidence which can deepen self-reported happiness and fulfillment. This is because exercising over time often correlates with overcoming personal challenges and barriers to working towards specific fitness and health goals.
For example, the goal could be to reach a healthy weight or work towards being able to perform ten pull-ups after years of failed attempts. When individuals are consistent with an exercise habit over time and this consistency helps them reach their goals, then it can improve an individual’s self-efficacy and belief in their ability to accomplish their goals.
As they continue to sustain exercising as a lifestyle habit and experience more examples of reaching their goals, it reinforces their belief system helping them build confidence and a strong feeling of self-efficacy. They might be more likely to try new things and set goals of a higher caliber; ultimately creating a life that brings them happiness. This is because they are more likely to confidently seek what they want out of life and make choices that will continue to improve their overall happiness.
Like the bidirectional relationship between exercise and psychological wellbeing, the more that confidence grows, the more individuals will work towards new goals, and the more they can continue to improve their happiness levels.
As demonstrated above, exercise has an array of physical and mental health benefits. Furthermore, regular, and consistent exercising can have a profound impact on one’s sense of happiness and overall quality of life.
- American College of Sports Medicine (2017). ACSM’s guidelines for exercise testing and prescription 10th edition. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.
- Weir, K (2011). The exercise effect. American Psychological Association, 42 (11), 48.
- Zhang, Z. & Chen, Z (2019). A systematic review of measures for psychological well-being in physical activity studies and identification of critical issues. Journal of Affective Disorders, 256, 473-485.
- Connect To Thrive | Psychology Today