Exercise and Mental Health, Part 3 - Happiness

Like many others, I love emojis!

Like many others, I love emojis!

Welcome to part three of this series. You can find the previous two parts here:

Perhaps the best thing about working as a personal trainer is that I can often see clients' happiness levels increase rapidly. This isn't because I'm doing any special coaching on the subject of happiness (that would make me a pseudo-psychologist), I must hasten to add, rather it is simply due to some of the amazing effects that exercise can have on the human mind and body.

It's one of the reasons, if not the main reason, I got into this industry - I love seeing people get strong and happy. I consider myself very lucky as it has become my career, and I genuinely look forward to every day of work at my studio in Blackrock, South Dublin.

As with the previous posts on the blog, this post took a lot of time to read up on. However, it proved much easier to condense to a manageable read with valuable takeaways. When I was reading up on everything, I found a line that really stuck with me. It's the opening line of this study by Wang et al: "Happiness is among the most fundamental of all human goals." Normally, scientific papers start off with much more academic language, so it was a refreshing change to read something where the subject of the paper was spelled out so simply right at the start. It proved to be an enjoyable and fascinating read.

The study involved over 17,000 people, so a big enough number to give a good impression of correlations. They established the participants' happiness and activity levels at baseline before following up at 2 and 4 years later. They took into account all different types of activity; everything from gardening to swimming, fishing to walking. The also grouped all the people together that they classed as "active" and "moderately active" to ensure they got enough "statistical power" to examine the relationships between activity and happiness.

The results were startling. If someone was inactive at the initial data collection and still inactive 2 years later, they were more than three times more likely to be unhappy at four years when compared to those who were consistently getting some form of exercise. Similarly, those who were active at baseline but not at two years, they were 1.7 times more likely to be unhappy at four years.

The size of the effect really surprised me here. It is a correlation but the authors do note several reasons that exercise could be helping directly:

"Many psychological hypotheses attempt to explain the beneficial effects of physical activity on happiness. These hypotheses suggest that physical activity could serve as a distraction from unfavorable stimuli, improve self-confidence, and increase social interactions that would lead to mood enhancement, which when extended over time could result in increases in happiness as measured in our study. There could be physiologic explanations for our findings, given that LTPA [leisure-time physical activity] also is associated with changes that might affect mood, including changes in neurotransmitters, body temperature, and differential activation of hemispheres of the brain associated with positive and negative mood."

Interesting stuff, eh? Most of the actual processes that happen in the body and mind are way beyond my understanding, but it's great to know that exercise can be so powerful. 

The study we've just looked at set out to investigate the long term relationship between physical activity and happiness as well as inactivity and unhappiness. Another study (Boehm et al.) recently sought to "assess psychological well-being before assessing physical activity to determine if happier adults are more likely to exercise than their less happy peers.” From looking at the previous study we can see there is a relationship between physical activity and happiness, and this second study helps us decide whether happy people exercise more, or if people who exercise more are happy because of exercise. 

A snippet of an article from Psychology Today breaks down this heavy study and gives us a solid takeaway:

"The Harvard researchers seem to have identified a synergistic feedback loop between psychological well-being and physical activity that may be bidirectional. But the million-dollar "chicken or the egg" question remains: Does being physically active make someone more likely to self-report higher positive emotions or does having positive emotions make someone more likely to exercise? 

Most likely, positive emotions and physical activity go hand-in-hand and work in tandem to create a bidirectional feedback loop and upward spiral in which each element is perpetually fuelling the other. However, the new research from Harvard does suggest that positive psychological states—in and of themselves—may create an impetus for people to be more physically active." 

I always love finding an article that puts everything from a complicated study in terms I can understand - I did read the full text, but struggled immensely with the language and statistics. This interpretation of the findings of the study by the author of the article show just how intertwined physical activity and happiness are. 

Happiness seems to help people stay active and also be a product of activity. The "feedback loop" of exercise and happiness is like a rapidly spinning roundabout that everyone could benefit from being on. So how do you jump onto this roundabout? 

I loved roundabouts as a kid!! More used to the roundabouts on roads these days...

I loved roundabouts as a kid!! More used to the roundabouts on roads these days...

You have two options to get onto this roundabout:

  1. Increase happiness and it's likely you'll become more physically active
  2. Increase physical activity and exercise and you'll likely become happier

I won't address option one. I'm always wary of overstepping professional boundaries and I'm not a psychologist. 

Option two I can help you with, however!

What can be done to increase physical activity?

Let's start with something most of us have little trouble with: walking. I think walking is one of the most underrated forms of exercise. It's possible for most reading this blog to take a 10 minute walk once or twice a day and the benefits could start to accumulate quite quickly. Amazingly, even if you don't think walking can make you happier, it can. This is brilliant news; because the barrier to entry for walking is so low. You don't need gyms and equipment to go for a stroll.

I couldn't find the full paper referenced in the above link, but the article I've linked to is definitely worth a read. The lead researcher, Jeff Miller, Ph.D. summed up the findings:

"Walking, as opposed to sitting or standing, “will almost certainly result in increased feelings of pleasant energy. And that’s true whether you expect this to occur or not.”

I often like to break up a long day by taking a walk along the seafront road in Blackrock before heading back into work. It primes me nicely for sessions I have after - my mood is better and energy levels are higher, meaning I can deliver clients a much better session. 

Walking is always going to be the best first port of call for anyone who hasn't been properly active in a while. It can build a decent base level of aerobic fitness and this comes in handy when chasing after any other goals or starting any new activities. 

It's important to not jump into any type of exercise too quickly. Even with the best of intentions you can shoot yourself in the foot by going hammer and tongs at it right from the word go; this can lead to a loss in motivation and if you're de-motivated you're not going to exercise, which in turn means you can't benefit from increased happiness. A small study highlights this brilliantly.

Regular exercisers will benefit more from vigorous exercise than people who haven't trained much before. The regular exercisers in the study who trained to exhaustion on a cycle ergometer reported big positive changes in mood, whereas those who weren't frequently training reported actually feeling worse afterwards; more anxious initially but then their mood slowly returned to baseline. In short, if you're untrained, you may not improve your happiness and mood above baseline if you do too much too soon. This can lead to quitting exercise regimes very soon in, and that isn't great news!

The authors highlighted how important it is for exercise professionals to take into account a client's previous exercise history. I remember years back I often used to do too much with clients initially and it didn't help them - I'm happy to say that these days every new client leaves their first session with me with a happy buzz. Once a client gets fitter by increasing their overall levels of activity out of the gym (by doing anything from walking to, say, gardening) and gains strength and fitness during sessions, more intense training can yield big benefits. Jumping straight in at the deep end can discourage people, despite their best intentions.

The key two takeaways on the subject of exercise and how to use it to positively affect your happiness are:

  1. Ramp up activity levels gradually, being mindful of daily activities such as walking
  2. Remember that exercise and happiness form a vicious cycle that you need to begin somehow - either work on your happiness levels (perhaps with a suitable professional) or work out a plan to get yourself more active (again, perhaps with a suitable professional). The two feed into each other nicely, as is the case with exercise and self-esteem.

The evidence base for the positive effects of exercise on happiness is growing - I'm pretty confident from all my reading (and experience) that getting active is a simple, powerful strategy to help people be happier.