How regular aerobic exercise will make you happy

Working out at Invivo's fitness center in Milwaukee, WI

First of all let’s address aerobic exercise. Aerobic exercise is physical exertion performed within the aerobic heart-rate training zone (70-80% Maximum Heart Rate). Exercise zones are generally determined by using the formula (220-age)*(Zone). For example, if you are 27 years old and want to stay in the aerobic training zone, we calculate (220-27)*(.7) and (220-27)*(.8) to get a target heart rate between 135-154 BPM. Note: your Maximum Heart Rate is 193 BPM.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends these weekly minimums to achieve important health benefits for adults:

    • 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity (i.e., brisk walking) and two or more days of muscle-strengthening activities that work all major muscle groups (legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders and arms).


    • 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity (i.e., jogging or running) and two or more days of muscle-strengthening activities that work all major muscle groups (legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders and arms).


  • An equivalent mix of moderate-and-vigorous-intensity aerobic activity and muscle-strengthening activities on two or more days that work all major muscle groups (legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders and arms).

Now let’s discuss wellness. For our purposes let’s define wellness as feelings that are opposite any negative emotion that would decrease the functioning level of the individual, such as depression and anxiety. We want to feel positive, energized and healthy.

Now that we have defined our concept let’s get to the sales pitch…

Do you (or someone you know) suffer from moodiness, anxiety, depression or low self-esteem? Do you want immediate relief that doesn’t require you to take a pill? Then aerobic exercise is for you! Aerobic exercise provides immediate and long-term relief from the blues since time immemorial.

It is important to back up this claim with research. There are numerous studies that outline the immediate effects of a single frequency and short duration bout of aerobic exercise on mood, which have been evaluated through questionnaires following aerobic exertion or quiet-rest. In a small clinical trial, researchers at the University of Vermont had 48 students split between cycling on an exercise bike for 20 minutes, or participating in quiet-rest for the same duration. The participants were asked to fill out questionnaires at 1, 2, 4, 8, 12 and 24 hours following their designated program. Researchers found that those who participated in the aerobic activity felt a significant improvement in mood up to 12 hours later, compared to the group who were at rest. There was no significant difference after 24 hours; thus leaving them to conclude that daily exercise can improve mood and relieve daily stressors.

In another single frequency study performed at University of Texas at Austin, participants suffering from major depressive mood disorder (MDD) were assigned to either participate in an acute aerobic exercise program or quiet-rest control. Those assigned to perform aerobic exercise underwent a single session of brisk-walking for 30 minutes where their heart rate was monitored to stay between 60-70% of their maximal heart rate, thus keeping them in the aerobic exercise threshold. Participants in the quiet-rest control stayed in a silent room for 30 minutes where they were not allowed to exercise, eat, sleep or read. At the end of the 30 minutes all participates were asked to fill out a questionnaire at 5, 30 and 60 minutes. Of the 9 subscales that Bartholomew and his colleagues assessed, exercise has had two additional benefits over quiet-rest when it came to psychological well-being (wellness) and vigor. They concluded that a single session of aerobic exercise appears to have a short-term, positive effect on mood in patients with MDD.

How cool is that? It turns out a single session of exercise can provide enough mood enhancement to act as your daily medication. Let’s now look at the long term benefits.

Researchers M. Otto and J. Smits found that, “Exercise can be as powerful as antidepressants in treating depression, and, more broadly, regular exercise is linked with decreased anxiety, stress and hostility”. Otto and Smits looked at dozens of clinical trials and population based studies to come up with this opinion. One large-scale study looked at over 10,000 Harvard alumni over a period of 20 years to see if there was a relationship between depression and physical activity over time. The study found that the more exercise the alumni participated in, the fewer and less severe incidents of depression occurred.

This long-term effect opinion is also strengthened by a study performed by Dr. J. Blumenthal on the effects of exercise training on patients major depression, where a 16 week exercise program was found to be as effective in treating patients with depression as antidepressants. Kirsten Weir, of the American Psychological Association, also reports that Blumenthal explored the mood-exercise relationship through a chain of randomized control trials. In one trial Blumenthal assigned inactive adults suffering from major-depressive disorder to one of four groups; two of these groups included exercise regiments, one had antidepressant medication, and one group was on a placebo. After four months of treatment the patients on the exercise and antidepressant treatments had higher rates of remission. After one year Blumenthal found that all subjects under the regular exercise program who continued to follow their regiments, regardless of if they were on medication or placebo, had lower depression scores than their non-active counterparts. He concluded that exercise was not only important in treating depression, but also in preventing a relapse.

Let’s recap: Exercising daily can provide immediate mood enhancement. Exercising regularly can provide a lifetime of wellness. So what are you waiting for? Go out and get happy!

Did you know? Sport Psychology is an interdisciplinary science field that began in the early 20th century. These professionals make it their business to study the impact of psychological factors (like mood!) on sports, and vice-versa!