One of the best ways to motivate yourself to be active is to focus on how exercise makes you feel better immediately.

In this article, I’ll outline all the amazing ways that exercise can improve your mental and emotional health!

Think about the last time you had a really good day. You were in a good mood, you felt happy, you looked forward to the next daily event, you felt like you could handle anything. Compare that to the last time you had kind of a crappy day, when you felt stressed or anxious.

How did each of those days affect your work, your relationships, or your personal goals? If you could have more good days and fewer bad ones, wouldn’t it change your life for the better?

Exercise can help you have more of those good days!  

There are a few different aspects of mental well-being. Happiness, optimism, mood, self-confidence and self-esteem, resiliency, and life satisfaction all contribute to how you feel each day, and to your long-term mental health and well-being.

Optimistic people, for example, live on average 11-15% longer and are more likely to live to the age of 85 and beyond.

Studies have investigated each of those aspects of mental health and how they’re affected by physical activity.


2015 study analyzed data from more than 11,000 people in 15 countries and found that any amount of physical activity made people more likely to report higher levels of happiness.

Compared to people who weren’t active at all, people who did some physical activity but not enough to meet the guidelines for physical activity (the guidelines are 150 minutes per week of moderate intensity exercise) were 20% more likely to report being happy.

More activity was even better.

People who did meet the guidelines for exercise were 29% more likely to report happiness. Very active people (more than 300 minutes of activity per week) were 52% more likely to report being happy.


Optimism means having a positive worldview and feeling confident that good things will happen. Optimists tend to be more confident, resilient, and cope better with stress.

Another study from 2015 found that, in a group of 9,600 women, optimism was associated with the amount of activity the participants did.

As with happiness, any amount of physical activity was better than none, with women doing a low amount of physical activity being 45% more likely to be optimistic than those who weren’t active at all.

Women who did a moderate amount of exercise were 76% more likely to be optimistic. Highly active women were 100% more likely to report optimism.


Many studies have found a connection between activity and mood.

Short-term studies have found that people are in a better mood immediately after they do a physical activity. That mood improvement can last for hours after the session. Longer-term studies have found that regular exercisers are more likely to report positive moods more frequently.

One study, for example, had college students spend 12 minutes on either a dull walking tour of their campus buildings, or sitting and watching a video of the same building tour.

Afterwards, those who completed the walking tour reported more positive mood than those who watched the video.

In another part of that study, students were told that they would have to write a two-page essay after a campus walking tour or after sitting and looking at pictures of the same campus tour.

Despite predicting that their mood would decrease by the end of the tour, the students who walked maintained their positive mood, while the students who sat and viewed pictures of the tour reported decreased mood.

Self-Confidence and Self-Esteem

2016 study found that people who did more physical activity were more likely to report higher self-esteem and self-confidence.

You might think that the main reason active people are more self-confident has to do with the way they look and their body image, but that’s not necessarily the case.

In this self-esteem study, the researchers looked at measures of body composition and body image (how people thought about their own bodies), and found that self-esteem was related to body image, but that that wasn’t the main driver of the effect of the physical activity on self-esteem.

In other words, the link between physical activity and self-esteem went above and beyond people’s body composition and how they perceived their own bodies.

Changing the way your body looks and feels through physical activity can make you more self-confident, but it’s the physical activity itself that has the biggest effect on your self-esteem.

You’ll find more about the link between physical activity and self-confidence later in this article.

Life Satisfaction

As you may expect by now, more active people tend to report higher levels of life satisfaction.

One study asked people to keep daily logs of their activities and their feelings about their health and their life for a year. They found that on days when people were active, they reported higher levels of life satisfaction.

How Does Physical Activity Make You Feel Better?

You may have heard that exercise releases endorphins, like dopamine and serotonin, in the brain, which makes you feel good. That’s true, but there’s much more to it than that.

Exercise releases a lot of different signals and substances in your brain, which do amazing things!

Along with those endorphins, which increase signals in the parts of your brain that make you feel positive emotions, exercise also releases hormones that lessen your brain’s response to stress. That allows you to deal with stress more easily.

Natural opioids and endocannabinoids (which are made by your body and brain) are also released by exercise.

That’s thought to be another way exercise boosts mood, and a possible source of the “runner’s high”, a feeling of euphoria that some exercisers get, usually during long and strenuous types of exercise.

There are also other substances, called “neurotrophic factors”, which help strengthen the connections between brain areas.

Those substances even repair brain cells and grow new ones. These are known to be released with exercise and help your brain function better. They are also responsible for the well-known effects of exercise on learning, memory, focus, attention, creativity, and other functions.

Exercise gives you the chance to achieve goals.

Being active teaches you skills and gives you “mastery experiences”, which are opportunities to improve your abilities.

Each time you lace up your sneakers and get out the door, you’ve accomplished something. Each time you’re able to do one more squat, lift a little more weight on the bench press, or finish a slightly longer distance, you’re achieving something.

That sense of achievement, no matter how small, contributes to your self-esteem and your confidence.

Exercise gives you a break from the less pleasant parts of your life.

Exercise serves as an important distraction from our stressful routines, which can help break us out of a negative mood.

I know that when I’m out running or lifting in the gym, it clears my mind. I don’t think about my long list of chores or the bad interaction I had with a family member yesterday.

When I’m lifting weights, I’m focused on what I’m doing in the moment. When I’m running, my mind naturally drifts towards positive thoughts. It’s a valuable break for me that I cherish and make time for.

How To Exercise To Feel Better And Improve Mental Well-Being

The link between exercise and mental well-being is really important for motivation.

If you exercise, you feel better. When you realize that exercise makes you feel better, you’re more likely to keep doing it. If you keep exercising regularly, you’ll feel even better, and you’ll get all the other valuable benefits of exercise.

While there’s a lot of research showing that exercise and being physically active can make you feel good, the research can’t really tell us the “best” way to exercise for boosts in happiness, mood, or other aspects of well-being.

Here’s what we do know…

Anything is better than nothing.

Almost all of the long-term studies found that any amount of exercise made people more likely to report better well-being.

No matter what you’re currently doing, you can get important benefits from making movement a priority. You don’t have to run marathons or work out 6 days a week to improve your life!

Short sessions can have a big effect.

Activities as short as 10 minutes have been shown to boost mood and make people feel good.

It’s pretty likely that even shorter “microworkouts” or movement breaks can help, too, although research has only recently started to look at movements lasting fewer than 10 minutes.

In fact, it might be better for your mood to do short bouts more frequently.

If you work out once a day, you get one mental boost. If you do a few shorter sessions spread out over the day, you have many opportunities to feel good!

You’ll get the biggest mood boost if you aren’t feeling great to begin with.

One study found that when participants were already in a good mood, their mood got better after being active but the improvement was small.

When participants started in a bad mood, though, their mood improved a lot after their activity bout. Next time you’re feeling a little down, go for a walk or do a workout. You’ll feel better afterwards!

You can also use physical activity to prevent a drop in mood. In that study on college students, they found that being active kept people feeling good, even when they were expecting to feel worse.

If you have a meeting planned that you expect to be unpleasant, or if you know you’re going to have a stressful day, use the power of exercise to limit how much your mood will drop.

Do it regularly.

Regular exercisers get bigger boosts in mood after each exercise session than people who only do their exercise sporadically.

meta-analysis found that exercise frequencies of more than 3 days per week had greater effects on mood.

Do both cardio and strength training.

Both types of exercise have been associated with overall well-being and each have been shown to improve mood immediately afterwards. Each type has distinct benefits, though, so it’s important that you include both in your usual exercise routine.

My FREE Strength Training 101 eBook will teach you everything you need to know to put together an effective strength training program.
For even more guidance, check out my Strength Training For Anxiety Program. This 12-week workout program is guided by an app so you can see exactly which exercises to do and how to do them. It also has extra features that can help you unlock the power of strength training for managing anxiety.

Most people feel better after light, low intensity movement.

Low intensity exercise, like leisurely walking or light and easy resistance training, has been found to make the majority of people feel good. This is the best type of movement to work into your daily routine.

Take a quick walk or do a couple of simple bodyweight or resistance band exercises several times a day. It only takes a few minutes at a time, you can do them anywhere, and you won’t break a sweat.

For more intense exercise, do the kind that feels best for you.

When you go beyond light exercise, there are two more levels of intensity: moderate and vigorous. Moderate intensity feels fairly challenging and gets your heart rate and breathing up a little. Vigorous intensity is very challenging and gets you out of breath and increases your heart rate a lot.

Studies have found that some people get mood boosts from moderate exercise, like a brisk walk or moderate weights lifted for more repetitions, while other people’s mood improves after high intensity exercise like a hard jog, interval training, or heavy weights lifted for lower reps.

Some lucky people feel good after just about any type of exercise. The “best” type of exercise for getting the most positive mood and well-being boosts depends on the person.

Try different types of exercise.

You can get results from many different types of exercise as long as you follow some basic guidelines. That means you have a lot of flexibility to choose the details of your workout.

For cardio, try long walks or long slow jogs, or shorter more intense cardio or interval sessions. Remember that cardio doesn’t have to be based on running. Try cycling, swimming, rowing, elliptical machines, dance classes, etc.

For strength training, you might find that you feel better after lifting moderate weights for more repetitions (12 or more reps), or that heavy lifting for fewer reps (4-12 reps) gives you a better mood boost. You might enjoy a certain style of training best. Maybe you find that you like powerlifting or bodyweight exercises.

Personally, I feel good after most types of cardio, but strength training is a different story. I feel best lifting very heavy weights for very few repetitions (in the 4-6 rep range). I also enjoy bodyweight exercises like push ups, pull ups, and pistol squats (also at lower repetitions).

Of course, I don’t necessarily enjoy them during a set, but afterwards my mood is almost always great and I feel strong and accomplished.

Ask me to lift a light weight for many repetitions (like a 15-20 rep set) or do bicep curls for a minute, and not only do I really not enjoy it at the time, I also don’t get that same positive boost afterwards.

Since I know what makes me feel best, I base the majority of my training around that type of exercise and only sprinkle in those really unpleasant exercises once in a while. That’s what you should aim to do in your training as well.

If you want to exercise harder, start slowly and work your way up.

Your fitness level has a lot to do with the type of exercise that gives you the best mood boost.

Studies in beginner exercisers often showed the biggest mood improvements from “easier” lower intensity exercises, while fitter and more experienced exercisers often got a bigger mood boost from more intense exercises.

Someone very fit who does a lot of high intensity exercise might get the best mood boost from repeated sprints; a long slow jog might not be enough to stimulate their brain and improve their mood.

On the other hand, someone who hasn’t done much exercise before and isn’t used to higher intensity exercise might feel terrible after a high intensity session but get a great mood boost after a brisk walk.

This is another good reason to start slowly and work your way up.

If you mismatch your fitness to the type of exercise you’re doing (jump right into high intensity interval training when you’re not a regular exerciser, for example), you might miss out on the mood boosts of exercise, which might make it harder for you to form an exercise habit.

I hope this helps you get moving so you can feel great! If you need help, feel free to contact me! My one-on-one personal training programs are designed to help you improve physical health as well as mental health!

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