More Evidence That Exercise Lifts Mood, Energy

Medically Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD
From the WebMD Archives

Aug. 30, 2001 -- "Exercise motivates and energizes me -- I can't wait for the next day to happen," dance instructor Carol Haefner of Sarasota, Fla., tells WebMD. "It helps me relate better to people, and to feel better spiritually, emotionally, mentally, and physically."

Haefner isn't the only one who gets an emotional boost from staying active. According to a study in the July issue of Health Psychology, 14 female college students getting just 10 minutes of moderate exercise improved their mood and energy levels. The mental benefits continued when they exercised for 20 minutes, as participants reported they had better mental focus. No immediate benefit was seen when exercise went on for more than 30 minutes.

Researcher J. Richard Coast, PhD, tells WebMD that psychological tests of the participants showed significant improvements in several areas. He adds he has seen changes like these happen right after people exercise, without even having to test for them. Coast is professor and chairman of exercise science at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff.

WebMD was interested to see what Steven J. Petruzzello, PhD, had to say about the study. He is a kinesiologist, or a scientist who studies how movement like exercise affects the body. He's at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and was not involved with Coast's report.

"We have also shown that even brief bouts of mild exercise can increase perceived energy and decrease tension," he tells WebMD. Petruzzello adds that this research supports guidelines of accumulating 30 minutes of physical activity throughout the day, as recommended by the CDC and the American College of Sports Medicine.

After Haefner injured her back in a car accident three years ago, doctors told her she should find a new line of work. "I was hell-bent on proving them wrong, because if I miss even a day from dancing, I feel miserable," she says. "It's like a craving, a shot of adrenaline that makes you high. You want more and more because it makes you feel so good."

Haefner won't give her actual age, and just says, "I'm well over 45, but less than 60, and a lot older than I look." She now does all sorts of exercise in addition to a full schedule of teaching dance.

But she admits that getting started is the hardest part: "When I got back to dancing after the accident, I had to force myself the first five days. But from the sixth day on, I really looked forward to it. Now I'll never give it up."

While Haefner's devotion to exercise may be more fanatical than most, this study suggests that even short bursts of exercise may improve mood and decrease fatigue.

Hermann J. Engels, PhD, FACSM, an associate professor of exercise science at Wayne State University in Detroit, also commented on the study for WebMD. He says it's important to remember that individuals of different age, physical condition, and training level may differ in how they feel after varying types and amounts of exercise.

"One person may feel better after only five minutes of exercise while another needs 15 minutes of exercise to reap a similar significant psychological benefit," Engels says. "The same person may need different time periods doing the same exercise on different days to bring about equivalent changes in mood states."

This study involved only stationary biking and did not address long-term psychological benefits of regular exercise. "Clearly, there are still many unanswered questions in this area," Engels says.