While we know that working out three to five times a week is ideal for maintaining health and achieving optimal physical benefits, we started to wonder just how long or how hard you have to work out in order to notably improve your mood. Knowing we aren’t alone in this query, we chatted with two sports psychologists to shed a little light on the intersection of fitness and mental health.
Why does working out boost your mood?
Research shows that exercise has an immense effect on mood, particularly because it directly correlates to a boost in dopamine (aka “the happy hormone”). According to a 2021 systematic review of studies on this effect published in Brain Sciences, researchers concluded that, like prescriptions, physical activity should be a recommended measure for improving mental health. That's how strong of an effect it can have.
Exercise doesn’t only boost levels of dopamine, though. According to sport and performance psychologist Isaac Zur, PhD, CMPC, MHC, of Mental Performance Consulting of NY, working out also promotes increased levels of mood-enhancing neurotransmitters norepinephrine and serotonin.
In addition to boosting some brain chemicals, Dr. Zur points out that some low-key forms of exercise can lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, as well. (Think: yoga, gentle hikes.) Though, it’s important to note that some research suggests that vigorous physical activity, in which a person uses more than 60 percent of their max heart rate, can temporarily boost cortisol levels, as it goes hand in hand with adrenaline, the chemical known for making us feel ready to take on any physical feat. This is why some therapists recommend patients with a history of anxiety approach high-intensity exercise cautiously.
Beyond the physiological effects of exercise, Dr. Zur says that physical activity increases blood flow to the brain, which in turn can boost cognitive function. It also simply improves self-esteem “due to the higher sense of self-accomplishment,” he says.
All of these things, together, make for a near-instant mood boost post-exercise.
How long do you have to exercise to improve your mood?
Since not everyone has the same physiological makeup, fitness level, or preferred workout type, Dr. Zur says that it’s difficult to give a universal prescription for how much exercise you need to get that mood enhancement. But you’ll likely want to get in half an hour or more to see a difference. “In general, a moderate-intensity workout that lasts for at least 30 minutes can effectively increase endorphins and improve your mood,” he says.
4 ways to get the maximum mood boost from your workout
Opt for workouts that prioritize bursts of energy
Remember: The key to a mood-boosting workout is to opt for moderate intensity, at least. That could mean jogging, a dance cardio class, or casual bike ride.
“Alternating high-intensity exercise with short rest time or lower intensity exercise (such as in a HIIT class) is also another great booster,” says sport psychology and performance consultant Brenley Shapiro, MSW, RSW, RP, who is the founder and president of Heads Up High Performance. “Hockey is another great example of this for a team sport—players have a strong boost of energy and intensity for their shift, lasting about 35 to 40 seconds, followed by rest time on the bench... until their next shift.”
According to Shapiro, when you alternate through exercise intensities, you’re able to adequately increase your heart rate while sustaining longer performance time, which in turn lets you experience all of the mood benefits.
If ice hockey isn’t your style, a bootcamp-style class like Barry’s will have you covered.
Work out with other people
“Exercising with friends or in a group setting is a great mood booster, whether it’s in a group exercise class, team sports, exercising with a friend, or even just going for a walk with someone,” Shapiro says. “We know that human/social connection is a basis for human motivation, so right there, that provides a great boost.”
As an added bonus, Shapiro points out that working out with friends also helps with accountability and social support, which can make crushing your health and wellness goals feel more attainable. If you don’t already have fitness-focused friends, join a local running club or book a group workout class like Orangetheory.
Pick a stellar playlist and turn up the volume
Music has a known mood-boosting benefit. “Creating a playlist of your favorite pump-up songs can be a great mood-booster,” Shapiro says. “We know that music on its own activates the pleasure centers of the brain (in fact, the same pleasure centers that sex activates)—so what a great boost to combine it with the existing [neurotransmitter boost] of exercise on its own.”
Make time for more mindful exercises
If you’re hoping to use your workout as a decompressing retreat away from your high-stress daily life, make time for more calming workouts. “Mindfulness-based exercises can help to maximize those feel-good chemicals and sustain them for longer periods of time,” Shapiro says, noting that examples include yoga, tai chi, and even meditation. “These types of exercises help to calm the body and clear the mind, thus reducing cortisol—the stress chemical—in the body. This helps to deepen relaxation and can help to reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression.”
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