Above: Image © sswartz, iStockphoto.com

So just why do people feel in a 'good mood' after they exercise? This 'good mood' phenomenon, also known as exercise high or runner's high, is the euphoric, happy, exhilarated feeling some people get from exercise that makes them feel happier in life.

There are many possible reasons why exercise affects our mood. Exercise has many physiological (e.g., physical) and psychological (e.g., mental) effects that can improve mood as well as relieve stress, increase self-esteem, and reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression. Let's take a closer look:

Let's Get Physical!

To explore how exercise effects our mood, let's tune into the physiological effects of exercise on the body. Physically, exercise stimulates the brain to release endorphins. Endorphins are hormone molecules, made by the hypothalamus of the brain and secreted into the bloodstream by the pituitary gland.

Endorphins normally slow or stop the feelings of pain and produce a sense of well-being or happiness. When you exercise, endorphins are released to slow the feelings of pain in stressed muscles and cause that exercise high.

Did you know? Endorphins are hormones produced by the region of brain called the hypothalamus and help create a good-mood feeling.

During exercise that lasts over 30 minutes, levels of endorphins in the blood can increase to as much as five times their resting levels! Other hormones also act on the body to increase your heart rate, constrict blood vessels to parts of the body that are not presently being used, and dilate (open) blood vessels in the muscles and liver. The dilation of blood vessels in the muscles allows the muscles to receive more oxygenated blood which increases our ability to use these muscles while exercising.

Just what kind of exercising are we talking about? Here's the scoop! Any type of exercise, such as walking, running and cycling can trigger the release of endorphins.

Did you know? Endorphins resemble opiates in their action and can act as "natural pain killers."

Researchers have found that the release of endorphins usually begins about 15 to 20 minutes into an exercise session and peaks after about 45 minutes. Since current exercise guidelines recommend that everyone do at least 30 minutes of exercise on five or more days each week, these guidelines are a perfect fit to experience the exercise high.

Tapping into your emotions

Now what about the psychological effects of exercise on the body? It's probably not surprising that endorphins control emotions as well. The average person is typically in glad mode but if something shifts them to sad or mad mode, endorphins are released to bring them back to glad.

Since the body is a connected system, when hormones, like endorphins, are present, they can work throughout the entire body. Each person is like a triangle, with the body, emotions and mind at each point. If you alter one angle, it affects the shape of the others. So, when endorphins are released to slow the feelings of pain like we saw with the physical effects of exercise, the endorphins are also affecting our emotions. Pretty cool, eh?

Did you know? Endorphin is an abbreviation of "endogenous morphine."

A few mental/emotional effects of participating regularly in exercise also include feelings of achievement and of being "in control". Increased self-esteem is often a by-product of the stronger body and greater endurance that result from regular exercise. Also important is that exercise interrupts the downward spiral of negative thoughts that may lead to depression.

People who exercise often say they are able to think more clearly, have more energy and are better able to handle stress... great news for students! Exercise can also effect how you look. People who exercise regularly look less depressed and their body language and posture are improved. They also tend to pay more attention to clothes, grooming and often meet new friends while exercising.

Dare to be active

So where to begin? Here are some ideas to get you and your friends started. First, choose an activity that you like or think you might like. This can be anything like walking, aerobics, dancing or playing a team sport. Then, get involved! Consider joining a sports team, taking a class like yoga, hip hop, or gymnastics, check out some activities at the community centre, or even put on some music and dance around your house! The possibilities are endless. So dare to be active and get yourself into a great mood!

Learn More!

  • Blair, Gwenda. (Feb 2005). What's behind runner's high? Is it endorphins, adrenaline or simply a sense of accomplishment? Here, we explain the chemical link between exercise and good mood. Shape magazine. Available here DuMont, Peaslee, MD. Vacaville Family Physician. North Bay Health Care. (cited May 6, 2006). Exercise Your Bad Mood Away. Available here
  • Health Alliance Plan. (cited May 6, 2006). Healthy Living: Exercise and Mood - Available from URL: http://www.hap.org/
  • How Does Exercise Affect Our Mood. (cited May 6, 2006). Available from URL: http://www.portfolio.mvm.ed.ac.uk/
  • Public Health Agency of Canada, The College of Family Physicians of Canada, Canadian Pediatric Society, and Canada Society of Exercise Physiology. (2002) Canada's Physical Activity Guide to Healthy Active Living for Youth.
  • US Department of Health and Human Services. (2000). Healthy people 2010: Understanding and improving health No. 017-001-00543-6). Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office. November 2000.

Candace is a Ph.D. student in Exercise and Health Psychology

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