Does Exercise Really Make You Feel Better? And How Quickly?

According to a recent study conducted by Jutta Mata of the Department of Psychology at Stanford University, even a short burst of physical activity can turn that frown upside down. Exercise has been shown to be both physically and mentally beneficial. People who engage in regular exercise tend to have fewer infections, lower body-fat percentages, and better psychological health than people who are sedentary. In fact, research has shown that exercise can decrease feelings of anxiety and lower blood pressure. Although there has been abundant research dedicated to the benefits of physical exercise and mental health, few studies have looked at the immediate effects of exercise. Specifically, no study has measured how someone’s mood is influenced in the moments following a burst of physical activity.

Mata wanted to explore how exercise, which also has been shown to protect people from symptoms of depression, would affect the mood of people with a history of major depressive disorder (MDD) and those without after they were exposed to sad mood cues. For the study, Mata enlisted 41 women with MDD and 40 with no history of depression and had some of them engage in 15 minutes of intense physical exercise while some did not. Immediately after, all the participants were exposed to two separate sad mood induction cues. Mata found that the women who exercised had much smaller increases in negative affect than those who did not. In particular, the sedentary women who had a history of MDD had the steepest increase in negative affect.

Mata also found that exercise increased positive affect in the participants prior to exposure to the sad mood cues. And although that increase was not sustained after the mood induction, positive affect remained higher in the women who exercised when compared to those who did not. Mata noted that the results of this study reveal only the exercise/affect effect after one episode, not over extended periods. Additionally, the findings are limited by the fact the participants were selected based on history of MDD; other conditions were not considered. “It will be important in future research to systematically examine psychological and physiological mechanisms that might underlie the effects obtained in this study,” Mata said. These limitations notwithstanding, the results of this research provide support for the psychological benefits of physical exercise, even in small doses.

Mata, J., Hogan, C. L., Joormann, J., Waugh, C. E., Gotlib, I. H. (2012). Acute exercise attenuates negative affect following repeated sad mood inductions in persons who have recovered from depression. Journal of Abnormal Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0029881

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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Wendy


    October 3rd, 2012 at 12:27 PM

    Unless I am just severely under the weather I always find a way to get in some kind of physical activity for at least 30 minutes, preferably more, every single day. I did not realize until I got a little older just how much better this makes me feel. It doesn’t have to be anything too labor intensive either, many times just a leisutrely stroll around the neighborhood will do the trick. For me this is an instant pick me up. I feel worse when I do nothing than I do when I work out hard and work up a sweat! I think that it has become such a habit for me that the thought of going a day without some kind of physical activity makes me stress almost more than anythign else!

  • iris


    October 3rd, 2012 at 4:15 PM

    What about that term runners high? Isn’t that like supposed to be this rush of adrenaline that would make you feel good pretty immediately?

  • jenny


    October 4th, 2012 at 12:16 AM

    this is good news too all lazy people I guess…for those of us who sign up at the gym,go there for a day or two and then just forget about it…I cannot for the life of me get myself to stick to an exercise schedule!

  • DJ


    October 4th, 2012 at 3:56 AM

    I wonder how the numbers compare when you look at regular exercisers and those who are more sedentary.

    Do you think that there is any research that shows that those who exercise regulalry are far less likely to even develop depression in the first place?

    I know that there is something to be said for exercise helping to improve a mood once it gets down. But how about prevention altogether? Do you think that there is solid proof that it can ward off depression for good?

  • John


    October 4th, 2012 at 5:30 AM

    Affect is a verb.

  • SouthernGal


    October 4th, 2012 at 11:23 AM

    Sorry ya’ll, but this exercising ain’t for me. I can find a whole lot of other things that make me feel good, and working up a sweat is definitely not one of them. I know, I know, it’s good for you, blah blah blah, but aren’t there better ways to spend my time? My answer would definitely be yes.



    October 4th, 2012 at 3:49 PM

    Never felt better than after some exercise. And the more often you do it the better it gets! Nothing like a 30-40 minute workout to get my day started. I am am much calmer,happier and content person on the days I do get my exercise.I even exercise when i have nowhere to go on a day because it just keeps my spirits up!

  • goldie


    October 5th, 2012 at 4:11 AM

    We as a society have a big problem in that we have become so accustomed to looking for a pharmaceutical solution to making us feel better that we have completely neglected the numerous benefits that things that we can do naturally can do for us too. Why do we feel that to feel good we have to get it from a bottle? That is so not true. There are many things that we can do for ourselves that can be instant mood lifters, with exercise being just one of those. Eating right is another, and hanging out with friends and people that you enjoy is yet another! It is time for us to get off of this cycle of thinking that we can solve any little problem that we have by popping a little pill.

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