Find Your Movement, Change Your Mood: The Emotional Benefits of Exercise

There’s little debate that exercise plays a powerful role in a happy, healthy life. Regular physical activity helps to build strong muscles, improve your cardiovascular and metabolic systems, shape your physique, and even extend your health. Physically, most people feel better when they regularly exercise. But it doesn’t stop there. The psychology of exercising and enjoying physical activities that boost mood can be just as beneficial to overall health. It’s time you explored the emotional benefits of exercise.

Move for Your Mental Health

Shaping mental health looks different for everyone. Increasing positive feelings to help elevate your energy, give you confidence, boost your mood, and enhance your ability to cope with life’s daily stressors is a great place to start. Your mental health influences your cognition, behavior, and emotional well-being—how you think, act, and feel—at any moment. A crucial part of overall health is gaining more control over how you experience the ups and downs of everyday life.

The benefits of exercise on mental health are powerful. In fact, research suggests that exercise can be as effective as other remedies in maintaining a healthy mental state. This happens by supporting the growth of nerve cells and optimizing their connections within the brain—not simply because it helps tone your physique and improve your self-confidence. A lifestyle shift to try activities that boost mood and bolster your mental health can be a fun way to reap the rewards of reduced stress and a resilient mindset.

The psychology of exercising gives insight into what motivates you to get up and move and how to fit regular activity into your day. If you’re already a habitual exerciser, you’re probably familiar with one of the most common reasons exercise can be so fun—it just feels good. That’s you experiencing the emotional benefits of exercise. But, what’s behind that euphoric feeling that floods your body after a long run and helps you bounce back after a tough day?

Physical Activity and Brain Chemistry

As an infant, you were loved and adored by parents and family members. Being doted on by your primary caregivers flooded your brain with positive neurotransmitters—a powerful, happy combination of chemicals that helped give you feelings of safety, love, and pleasure through responsive interactions.

As you grow and develop, you carry this same innate need for positive feelings of well-being. And though physical activity may not exactly mimic the soothing feeling of receiving love from a parent, the emotional benefits of exercise produce some of the same combinations of chemicals—poignant tools for living a full and balanced life.

The crucial interplay of communication between your brain and body is a result of neurotransmitters and their essential role as messengers. They create a link to your nervous system tied to your emotions, motivation and drive, pain response, focus, energy levels, and your ability to tap into the positive aspects of the human experience. Common neurotransmitters that play a role in exercise and mood for greater mental health include:

  • Serotonin is a messenger that impacts your entire body. As an important regulator of mood and cognition, it’s responsible for creating an overall feeling of well-being and happiness. It also reboots your brain while you sleep and affects digestion.
  • Dopamine is your primary motivation chemical. It helps to promote ambition, drive, and attention. Plus, it assists to regulate important responses like movement and learning, as well as impacts your emotional state. Maintaining basic self-care, including daily exercise, is the most efficient way to ensure optimum dopamine levels.
  • Norepinephrine is associated with the fight-or-flight response when your body senses danger. It helps you react to stress and exercise by increasing heart rate and plays a role in breaking down fat to provide energy for your body.

Digging Deeper into Exercise’s Feel-Good Factor

If you’ve ever been motivated to hit the gym simply because it feels good—there’s a great explanation why. Hint: it’s not just the flood of endorphins common with this exhilarating feeling. Endocannabinoids (produced naturally in the body) are chemical compounds that are small enough to cross the blood-brain barrier to bind to neural receptors. They are actually responsible for the rush you feel after a great work out.

Aerobic exercise increases the production of several neurotropic factors—growth factors of the nervous tissue. Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is among them, playing a central role in protecting existing neurons and stimulating the growth of new ones (a process called neurogenesis). BDNF actually helps you grow new brain cells. The more BDNF you have, the more you support the growth and development of your nervous system.

During exercise, BDNF is produced and works with the endocannabinoid receptors in the body to effectively block pain and create that feeling of bliss commonly known as a runner’s high. The presence of new neurons gives you an increased level of responsiveness to be more in touch with your experience. And the unique protective ability of BDNF makes your existing brain cells more resilient and less affected by stress on the body. Stress from regular exercise causes a chain reaction that feels good, helps make you more resilient to feelings of stress and anxiety, and actually helps you bounce back from the outside stressors of life faster than before.

BDNF also boosts serotonin production. And it’s reciprocal—higher levels of serotonin stimulate BDNF expression—creating a dynamic cycle that ignites feel-good senses from physical activity alone.

The Mental and Emotional Benefits of Exercise

It’s true, exercise helps to stimulate your mood on a chemical level, but the mental and emotional benefits of exercise also transform your day-to-day mindset. Whether you have a set fitness routine, are a seasoned weekend warrior, or want to experience the positive impact of daily exercise, you may recognize these benefits as you increase your physical activity.

  • Improved self-esteem
  • Increased energy and stamina
  • Easier weight management
  • Improved sleep quality
  • Pride in accomplishments
  • Improved body image perception
  • Enhanced ability to cope with stress
  • Stronger interpersonal relationships
  • Increased mental alertness

These practical benefits of exercise can increase your satisfaction, gratitude, and connection—all major mental-health wins.

Go the Distance with Aerobic Activities that Boost Mood

If you haven’t adopted a favorite aerobic activity, it’s a good time to try something new. Any form of exercise helps to overcome feelings of anxiety and increase well-being, but research shows the best activities that boost mood kick your heart rate up a bit. Moderate to vigorous aerobic exercise creates more robust and longer-lasting changes to your neurobiology. That’s right—revving up the treadmill speed can enhance your ability to cope with challenging situations.

  • Moderate intensity exercise—50-60 percent of your max heart rate (find your max by subtracting your age from 220)
  • Vigorous intensity exercise—70-85 percent of your max heart rate

Add intensity slowly, if necessary. Carry a backpack on your hikes, set goals to swim a faster lap, take fewer breaks between sets in the gym—anything to increase your heart rate as you become more physically fit. Achieving your personal exercise goals is an unbeatable investment in your well-being.

Keep the Momentum

A healthy habit of regular exercise creates ongoing, mood-boosting effects to build your momentum and tackle your fitness goals. If the first step to fitness seems difficult, try these motivational tips to mentally prepare for your next sweat session.

  • Action precedes motivation. Don’t wait until you feel like exercising—just do it. Schedule your workouts ahead of time, set out your gear, and don’t think too much, just start moving.
  • Be mindful of screen time during exercise. Engaging on social media or checking your phone constantly forces you to multitask during your workouts. You may become overwhelmed or distracted and lose your intensity and drive to continue.
  • Recruit a friend. Working out with a buddy enhances social connection, can push you to strive for greater intensity, and makes you accountable for your goals. Plus, a shared fitness goal is great motivation.
  • Make your workout fun! Finding the right type of exercise is a must. Try new activates and workouts, and switch up your routine to keep you motivated. The more engaged you are in your workout, the more likely you’ll be to show up day after day.

If you’re looking to improve your overall health and find a natural way to cope with daily stress, find some activities that your boost mood. Positive emotional benefits of exercise await on the other side of an intense bike ride, a long run, a night of dancing, or a competitive tennis match. Make your move toward better mental health today.