A New Theory Of Why Exercise Makes You Happy

by Lily Feinn

You've probably heard of "runner's high," that momentary euphoria caused by a rush of endorphins following aerobic activity — but now there's yet another reason to get moving. If you've ever wondered exactly why exercise makes you happy more generally — not just in the moment — a new study suggests that working out produces lasting positivity in your life well after the high has faded. The study, published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, posits that not only will exercise help you feel good and improve your overall health, but that a trip to the gym one day may prompt a "cascade of positive events" that can last for the following 48 hours. Seems like a pretty good trade for a few sweaty minutes of watching Chopped on the elliptical, huh?

The mood-boosting powers of exercise are already pretty well established, with loads of previous research to back up the many benefits. When we exercise, our bodies release feel-good chemicals known as endorphins, which activate our body's opiate receptors, reducing our perception of pain and providing us with a positive, morphine-like effect (hence the "high" part in "runner's high"). Long term effects of lacing up those sneakers can include reduced stress and stymied depression, as well as better self-esteem and improved sleep.

Now we may be able to add improved social interactions and productivity to the list of positive effects, as well. For the study, researchers out of George Mason University sought to "examine the relationship between exercise on a given day and other daily positive social and achievement events." 179 Northern Virginia college students, 70 percent of whom were women, were asked to complete an online survey, or "daily diary," for three weeks. The participants provided reports of their actions each day before heading to bed, logging any exercise completed on that day and the type, such as weight training or cycling, and noting daily positive events unrelated to physical activity. These events were divided into social events such as "Had a good social interaction" and goal-oriented ones like "Completed a project."

Analyses of the surveys revealed that when a student exercised, it seemed to predict an increased frequency of both positive social events and achievement-based ones for the rest of their day. The greater frequency of positive social events carried through on the subsequent day, but the person did not have the same increased productivity without the exercise. As New York Magazine's Science of Us blog points out, self-reported data is not always the most reliable; however, the findings do align with previous studies, which lends them a bit more weight.

The authors suggest that their findings show that exercise can potentially be used as a "vehicle to increase social engagement," and that enjoyable social interaction while working out, like jogging with a partner or a group class, could lead to people seeking out further positive social events. In other words, the positive mood produced by the exercise can facilitate more positivity in your life, so if you need a little more sunshine this summer, think about making time for a work out.