Molly Kujawski has a family history of mental illness. In college she became depressed and took medication to fight the blues. At the same time, in an effort to counteract her genetics, she started working out regularly and eating better — and everything changed. “Once I got consistent with exercising and eating well, I didn’t need medication anymore,” she says.
In a word, she was happier.
Now 40 years old, the certified personal trainer and owner of ExcelFit With Molly in Fort Mill, South Carolina, is seeing the same transformation in her clients: Though vastly different in background and ages, they all struggled mentally and emotionally until they adopted a nutrition and exercise “prescription.” “I’ve been training people since 2005 and have seen a direct correlation between consistent exercise and a boost in happiness,” Kujawski says. “I have clients who can attest to not needing medication or therapy now because of exercise. There’s a huge link there. It’s undeniable.”
Anecdotal evidence doesn’t always parallel science, but in this case it does, and more than 20 years of research has identified a connection between exercise and happiness. For example, a 2019 review of more than 20 papers published in the Journal of Happiness Studies found “a consistent positive relationship between physical activity and happiness … with as little as 10 [minutes of] physical activity per week.”
But the question remains, How and why does exercise make us happier? As with many things to do with mood, we turn to the brain for answers.
This is your brain … on exercise
Quantifying happiness is a big challenge. Emotions and feelings are subjective, and depending on circumstance, your sentiment could change on a dime: One moment you’re happy, the next you’re angry or sad or unsure.
“We don’t have a good way to capture the happiness that’s consistent from study to study,” says David Schary, Ph.D., associate professor of exercise science at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina, who specializes in the psychological aspects of sports and physical activity. “But we do know that exercise has a substantial effect on depression — so much so that it’s [considered] to be just as effective as therapy or drugs — and can cause an increase in ‘subjective well-being,’ which is one metric used [in research] to measure happiness.”
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