What does it take to motivate and inspire ourselves to exercise regularly? The desire to be fit and strong, to lose weight, to be fitter and healthier? Is it the buzz of a long intense workout or simply to have a happier and fulfilling life?
We may have all heard of the runners high and experienced that moment of euphoria after particularly challenging workout or yoga practice but now research shows that exercising makes us happier than money, or at least that regular exercise is a determining factor of happiness more so than income.
The buzz experienced during and after exercise, attributed to the release of endorphins, has been shown to increase during intense physical activity and in particular when reaching ones maximum aerobic capacity (1) but this is a temporary state and not necessarily attributable to long term happiness and improved mental health. In fact, over exercising can also make us less happy than people who don’t exercise at all.
A cross sectional study conducted in the USA using data from1.2M people examined the relationship between physical activity and mental health. A full range of physical activities were cited, including housekeeping and gardening, and all were shown to improve happiness but those participating in team sports and group exercise reported the highest number of happy days per year compared to a range of other physical activities. (2)
All Things in Moderation
Duration and frequency of exercise also make a difference – moderation is key. For example the mental health and happiness of people who exercise for more than 3 hours a day was lower than those who were physically inactive. The research found the ideal ratio to be 3 sessions per week at 30-60 minutes each. (2)
Does money make us happy?
Most interestingly of all perhaps was the finding that although earning more money does improve happiness for some, the extra happiness generated by regular exercise was equivalent to earning an extra $25,000 per year! All the more reason to take time off from a stressful job for some social exercise. Your health is your wealth after all. (2)
Other unrelated studies reveal similar results – A study conducted in Iran compared the happiness of male students who played team sports with a control group who did none. After 8 weeks the sports group reported positive improvements in happiness and other mental health indicators compared to the control group who reported no improvements. The report suggests that team working and friendship cultivated through team sports increases self confidence and overall happiness. (3)
More studies will need to be carried out to help understand precisely which activities work best and how different chemical / psychological factors contribute. Whichever way you see it just get out there and take part, do what you enjoy and don’t take it too seriously!