Although it may not seem like it when you're nearing the end of your cardio routine, drenched in sweat and gasping for air in the least attractive way possible, yet another study has found that aerobic exercise improves your mood in the short term. Researchers have long been aware of the physical advantages of regular exercise, which include everything from better cardiovascular health to improved sleep habits, and there's plenty of evidence that working out can help stabilize your mood in the long term — that's why a growing number of psychologists recommend physical activity as a way to treat disorders like depression or bipolar disorder.
However, a study published in the journal Cognition and Emotion indicates that the improvements to your mood start pretty much immediately. Researchers divided 80 participants into two groups: Exercisers, who jogged for half an hour, and non-exercisers, who used the half hour to stretch instead. Prior to this activity, participants took a survey establishing their current emotional state; immediately afterward, participants watched a sad scene from the 1979 movie The Champ. Finally, they completed surveys measuring their mood and emotion regulation and watched a clip from a romantic comedy. The idea was to see how exercise affected mood regulation; the scene from The Champ was intended to make everyone sad, but researchers hypothesized that some people would recover faster than others. However, they also believed that exercise may serve to improve mood even in people who had more difficulty keeping their emotions in check.
It's probably no surprise that some participants turned out to be better at emotional regulation than others; those who initially said there was nothing they could do to improve their mood reported more feelings of sadness than other participants. However, despite individual differences in emotion regulation, researchers found that exercise played a role in improving mood: Overall, the exercise group reported feeling less sadness at the end of the study than the non-exercise group.
"Participants who exercised were better able to overcome or compensate for initial difficulties [with emotional regulation]," researchers concluded, according to Science Daily. In short, exercise was associated with improved mood even in people who would normally take longer to recover emotionally.
Of course, the fact that exercise improves mood isn't anything new; decades of research have found that physical activity — unpleasant as it may be at the time — is hugely important in maintaining mental health. Even setting aside mood regulation, getting off the couch has been shown to improve memory, help stave off the effects of aging, and possibly even change the structure of the brain itself. In contrast, not exercising has been associated with depressive symptoms, anxiety, and a lack of energy.
Of course, this doesn't mean you should develop a Dwayne Johnson-style gym routine; that way lies madness and getting up at an ungodly hour of the morning. On the other hand, it certainly doesn't hurt to try to work in exercise when you get the chance. Hitting the treadmill may be The Worst while it's happening, but you'll feel better afterward — until the sore muscles kick in, of course.