Losing weight and getting sexy, it turns out, isn’t the only reason to tie on your running shoes. Regular exercise is another powerful tool for living a happier life. And it doesn’t take much to see a real difference. In recent studies, moderate exercise of 30 minutes three times per week can be as effective as our best anti-depressant medications (yes, Prozac, we’re talking about you!).
Moderate exercise releases dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine – the brain’s happiness chemicals — and has been shown to lift mood for up to 12 hours. Exercise is also a healthy way to distract yourself from your problems when you are stuck in a negative rumination cycle.
Exercise can easily be combined with other happiness boosting activities. If the weather is nice, go outside and walk or run through a park or at least near some trees in the neighborhood; good weather and exposure to nature both increase mood in addition to the benefit you get from exercise. If you can exercise with others or even just smile as you pass people on the street (both forms of social interaction, another key happiness booster), you’ll get a double shot of happiness. I often make a game of smiling and saying hi to everyone on my runs – their mirror neurons make it hard for them not to respond in kind. And it always gives me a boost to see others smiling – especially when I helped cause it.
Exercise doesn’t have to be a grind at the gym either. Any activity that gets your heart rate up gives you the benefit. Is there a sport you loved to play when you were younger? Find a team and make the time to do it. Do you like gardening or taking a walk? Make the time in your busy schedule. Consider walking during your lunch hour – you can even bring a coworker along if you need some time brainstorming or checking in on a project. Get in the habit of taking the stairs instead of the elevator or park your car at the back of the lot and walk a little more.
In our exercise-obsessed culture, it’s hard not to see exercise as one more “should.” We already spend so much time beating ourselves up over going to the gym so we can lose weight or “be healthier.” Instead see if you can put exercise in the same category as other things that make you happy – listening to good music, savoring a glass of wine, catching up with a friend. Take on the perspective that exercise is simply another tool to help improve your mood and generate more happiness.
Struggling with how you can regularly fit exercise into your life? In a couple weeks, I’ll talk about how happiness habits are formed. For now, play with this theory. How do you feel on days you get some exercise compared to the days you don’t?
Eric Karpinski The Happiness Coach