Love it or hate it, making regular exercise a habit is known to promote optimal healthMinimum amount of physical activity for reduced mortality and extended life expectancy: a prospective cohort study. Wen CP, Wai JP, Tsai MK, Yang YC, Cheng TY, Lee MC, Chan HT, Tsao CK, Tsai SP, Wu X. Institute of Population Science, National Health Research Institutes, Zhunan, Taiwan. Lancet. 2011 Oct 1; 378(9798):1244-53.. While many people grimace at the thought of sweat, spandex, and sit-ups, exercise may be a prescription for more than just keeping the doctor away. Some research suggests there’s a link between physical fitness and happiness. But the question remains: Can we exercise ourselves happy?

A Prescription for Happiness — Why It Matters

Photo by Jess Ivy

Happiness is a pretty subjective concept. But researchers think happiness has to do with genetics and a range of environmental factors like income, marital status, religion, and education. And one huge predictor of personal happiness is physical health. The ability to ward off sickness and disease, maintain a hormonal balance, and manage stress all contribute to self-satisfaction. That’s one reason people who work out might be happier than the rest of us — exercise stimulates the production of disease-fighting proteins known as antibodies, which destroy unwelcome invaders like bacteria and virusesVoluntary physical activity prevents stress-induced behavioral depression and anti-KLH antibody suppression. Moraska, A., Fleshner, M. University of Colorado at Boulder, Department of Kinesiology and Applied Physiology, Boulder, CO. American Journal of Physiology 2001;281(2):R484-9.The effect of preseason training on mucosal immunity in male basketball players. Azarbayjani, M., Nikbakht, H., Rasaee, M.J. Department of Physical Education, Science and Research Branch, Islamic Azad University, Tehran, Iran. The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness 2011;51(4):701-7.. So folks who stay physically active are generally better equipped to combat sickness and stress, a key component of happiness.

During physical exercise, the brain also releases endorphins, chemicals known to produce feelings of euphoria, commonly associated with a “runner’s high.” Endorphins trigger the release of sex hormones, such as norepinephrine, which enhance mood and create a sense of well-beingEffects of exercise and physical activity on depression. Dinas PC, Koutedakis Y, Flouris AD. Department of Sport and Exercise Science, University of Thessaly, TEFAA Karies, Trikala 42100, Greece. Ir J Med Sci. 2011 Jun; 180(2):319-25.Endorphins: the basis of pleasure? C H Hawkes. J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry. 1992 April; 55(4): 247–250.. Exercise can also boost happiness levels by helping to reduce stress. When we exercise, our bodies burn the stress hormone cortisol. Too much stress, and high cortisol levels, can increase feelings of nervousness and anxiety while decreasing motivation and immune function.

It’s not clear that a certain amount of exercise can guarantee happiness, or even a short-term high. Some scientists say just 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise can help reduce depression and anger. But, unfortunately, even fitness fanatics aren’t guaranteed stress-free living.

Sweaty and Smiling — The Answer/Debate

Exercise may contribute to happiness, but it’s not the only cause of a smiling face. While physical activity is among the factors that have the biggest influence on our sense of well-being, it’s also important to have a sense of belonging and purpose, financial security, and positive social interactions.

Plus it’s possible that happy people tend to exercise more than others and that working out doesn’t necessarily make them happy. In the case of depression, it’s also unclear whether physical inactivity causes negative feelings or vice versaTesting causality in the association between regular exercise and symptoms of anxiety and depression. De Moor MH, Boomsma DI, Stubbe JH, Willemsen G, de Geus EJ. Department of Biological Psychology, VU University Amsterdam, van der Boechorststraat 1, 1081 BT Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2008 Aug; 65(8):897-905.. Depressed people often fall into a cycle in which they avoid exercise, then feel blue, and then really don’t want to exercise; and it can be hard to find motivation to break out of that cycle.

There are also certain situations when exercise can contribute to unhappiness, like in the case of exercise addiction. In response to exercise the body releases chemicals that stimulate the brain’s reward center, and people can start to crave the pleasurable feeling associated with the chemicals. So some athletes to continue to exercise despite injury, fatigue, or even the threat of a heart attackPotential adverse cardiovascular effects from excessive endurance exercise. O’Keefe JH, Patil HR, Lavie CJ, Magalski A, Vogel RA, McCullough PA. Mid America Heart Institute of Saint Luke’s Hospital of Kansas City, MO, USA. Mayo Clin Proc. 2012 Jun; 87(6):587-95..

Whether happiness is among the many benefits of exercise, it’s probably worth taking a jog around the block or a spin on the bike. If nothing else, the change of scenery may be just the mood boost we need.

The Takeaway

Working out generally keeps us healthy, reduces stress, and even provides a short-term high. But remember exercise isn’t a cure-all for more serious issues like depression.

This article has been read and approved by Greatist ExpertsJen Cassetty andSherry Pagoto.

Do you find working out gives you a mood boost? Let us know in the comments below.