You’ve heard that exercise can make you happier and less stressed. But just how much physical activity do you need to turn around a bad day? Researchers have been hard at work trying to answer that question, and while there’s no one get-happy prescription for everyone, evidence indicates that pretty much any amount of exercise—even a 15-minute walk—can help to turn a frown upside down.
Exercise and the brain
“Exercise is messy,” according to Wendy Suzuki, PhD, professor of neural science and psychology at New York University and the lead author of a recent large-scale study review on exercise and the brain. There are so many things that happen to the body during a single workout—increased heart rate and metabolism, changes in neurochemical pathways—that it can be difficult to determine which actions lead to each change in the brain.
But when it comes to mood, changes in the brain are relatively swift and easy to see. “A single bout of exercise can change neurotransmitter levels in the brain, increasing dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins—all of which have been associated with a good mood and/or pain management,” says Suzuki. “These neurochemicals are the brain’s natural opiate.” Add exercise, and your brain turns on the feel-good chemicals almost instantly.
How much is enough?
Scientists may never pin down an exact formula for an ideal “happiness workout.” That’s because each person’s reaction to exercise is different based on body composition and level of fitness, as well as the types of activity the individual enjoys and who she or he is doing it with, says Suzuki.
Rather than following a preset prescription, test your own likes and dislikes and monitor how you feel about 15 minutes after finishing different workouts, from a brisk 30-minute walk to an hourlong spin class. You might want to take a cue from sports scientists and keep a log, rating your mood on a scale of one to ten to help you pinpoint what types of activities serve you best.
Per Suzuki, about 15 minutes after working out most people report higher mood states, regardless of the type of activity involved. This self-experimentation is just to figure out which types of exercise work best for you.
The best way to get mental health benefits from exercise
You can book a barre class on a day you’re feeling down. But one of the most beneficial effects of exercise comes from doing sweat sessions regularly. “In a patient population with mood disorder, three months of consistent exercise led to a decrease in depressive symptoms equal to what you’d get from using common antidepressants,” says Suzuki. Making exercise a daily part of your routine can actually make you more resilient when life could be bringing you down.
Combining exercise with other things you like can also make your spirits soar. If music is your jam, keep adding to your playlist so that you get a double brain chemical boost during exercise. If you get a rush from hanging out with friends, invite your besties along for a walk and talk session. If you’ve found that the meditative effects of thinking or repeating a mantra work for you, come up with a few phrases you can rely on to automatically usher in a good mood. If nature gives you an instant sense of calm, work in regular hikes or bike rides.
“Exercise is one of the easiest things you can do to modulate your mood,” says Suzuki. “You know that it works. It’s just about finding that optimum prescription for yourself and making physical movement fun.” Any type of activity—from walking to line dancing to going on a light jog—will help your overall mood and health. So try out several different types, varying where you do it and how fast you get your heart pumping. Your body—and brain—will thank you.