Does exercise make you happy? (Spoiler alert: Yes, but it may depend on why you are working out)

Does exercise make you happy?

Spoiler alert: Yes, but it may depend on why you are working out.

By: Julia Pangalangan, B.A., ACE Health Coach, CPT

How many times have you heard this phrase, “Exercise is for your mind, body, and soul..”? But what does that even mean?

Our society places an intense focus on exercising for the body. We are taught that exercise can help us achieve the impossible image standard that we desire. We all have also heard the crazy long list of the physical health benefits of exercise.  Very rarely are the mind and soul benefits of exercise brought to our attention, even though those may be the most significant to our well being.

Did you know that exercise can influence your happiness levels?

People desire happiness, but yet it remains elusive. I believe that happiness is related to our motivations for exercise. I decided to conduct research to see if there was truth behind my beliefs. I sought to better understand the connection between motivation for exercise and happiness. I felt that it was important to share this information, so that we can reap all of the potential benefits of physical activity, extending far beyond the physical health benefits we always hear about. The hope is that more of us can get beyond the obligation to exercise because ‘“it’s good for you,” and move into the mindset of wanting to exercise because it makes you feel good.

So what is positive exercise motivation? Those who exercise with a positive exercise motivation workout for reasons related to their health or sense of purpose. There is a dynamic depth to their motivation that goes beyond a desire to fit a societal image.

Dr. Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology, identified that the happiest people live a multidimensional life. This means that they invest in health, purpose, and relationships. For this reason, among others, I believe individuals who workout to better these dimensions of life are happier than those who do not.

I completed a study in January of 2019 to measure happiness and motivation for physical activity. The results demonstrated that a positive exercise motivation predicted levels of happiness in participants. High positive exercise motivation was positively related to higher levels of happiness.

Below are some of the types of questions I asked people. Which group of statements sounds more like you?

I work out because I feel like I have to.

I work out to maintain an image or so that others know about it.

I work out because I have guilt about something I ate.

I work out because I feel bad about myself.

I work out because I feel pressure from others.


I work out because being healthy is an important value to me.

I work out because its fun.

I work out for the challenge.

I work out because exercise makes me feel better.

I work out in order to accomplish goals.

If the first set of statements sounds like you, then you may be more driven by motivations that do not increase happiness. This may also be related to why it is hard for you to stick with a regular exercise routine.

If the second group of statements sounds more like you, then you may already possess a high level of positive exercise motivation. Positive exercise motivation is strongly related to intrinsic motivation, an internal motivation to perform exercise. Intrinsic motivation is linked to exercise adherence and satisfaction.

You may have found that you identified with items from both lists, and that’s normal! It is critical to remember that no one is perfect. Most people do not fit into one category or the other entirely. However, possession of positive motivations for exercise could contribute to your overall activity level and health. Beyond this, increasing positive exercise motivation can improve happiness and quality of overall life.

How can you change your motivation for exercise?

  1.  Reflect on why you work out.

Take some time and be honest about your motivations. Make a list of all of the amazing (non-aesthetic) reasons to workout. Pull from your inner values such as your desire to be your best self for your loved ones, or your desire for continued growth, or your love of challenges. Returning to these can be beneficial for increasing intrinsic motivation and maintaining positive motivation.

  1.  Make your workouts FUN.

Sometimes we are so focused on losing the weight, feeling an obligation, or fitting an image, that we forget exercising is supposed to be enjoyable! Find ways to be active that you actually enjoy. Play more sports, go to a group exercise class, listen to a podcast or good playlist while jogging through a park, lift weights with a friend, go dancing, or get outside for a walk.

  1.     Set non-physique related goals.

Increase healthy exercise motivations by setting goals that you care about and would like to work towards. Sign up for a distance run, log the weight you are lifting week to week, aim to meet a new friend at the gym once a month, or close all of the rings on your Apple Watch.

  1.   Keep a journal.

Write down your thoughts and feelings before, during, and after exercising. This can increase mindfulness and help identify the movements, situations, and times when physical activity is enjoyable. Then you can focus on the exercise that brings you joy. Movement of the body is a freedom to fall in love with, not an obligatory punishment to inflict.

  1.    Connect physical activities to social activities.

Go on post-dinner walks or hikes with the family, attend group fitness classes, walk with coworkers during your lunch break, go out dancing, or play with your dog. Relationships are an essential component of happiness! Additionally, social support can be a vital tool in maintaining an active lifestyle.

So yes, physical activity can make you happier. Now what do you do with this information? Make a move towards your best self. Strive to exercise for your whole self and watch your health and happiness thrive.

To read my full thesis, please email me at

For more resources on positive psychology, check out What happy people know: The new science of happiness can change your life for the better by Dan Baker and Cameron Stauth and Authentic Happiness by Martin Seligman.

To look at the full scales used in my research, please take a look at the Exercise Self-Regulation Questionnaires by Deci and Ryan in Self-Determination Theory: An Approach to Human Motivation and PersonalityThe Self-Regulation Questionnaires and A Measure of Subjective Happiness: Preliminary and reliability construct validation by Lyubormirsky and Lepper.

For more information on the relationship between physical activity and happiness, check out these resources:

Biddle, S.J.H., & Mutrie, N. (2008). Psychology of physical activity: Determinants, well-being, and

interventions. New York, NY: Routledge.

Brown, J.D. (1991). Staying fit and staying well: Physical fitness as a moderator of life stress.

Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60, 555-651.

Hefferon, K., & Mutrie, N. (2012). Physical activity as a stellar “stellar” positive psychology

intervention. The Oxford Handbook of Exercise Psychology, 7, 118-126.

Ryan, R.M., Frederick, C.M., Lepes, D., Rubio, N., & Sheldon, K.M.(1997) Intrinsic motivation

and exercise adherence. International Journal of Sport Psychology, 28, 335-354.

Zhang, Z., & Chen, W. (2018) A systematic review of the relationship between physical activity

and happiness. Journal of Happiness Studies,1, 1-18.

Thanks for taking the time to read about my research and making a move towards a healthier, happier you! I included this photo of my fiance and I to get to know me and share a little about #WhyIRace. I race (in this case, exercise) to be my best self in order to live well and serve others. I believe that health encompasses physical, mental, social, and spiritual wellness. As a group fitness instructor, personal trainer, health coach, and friend, I am passionate about empowering others to achieve their goals and work towards holistic health.

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