Happy Friends Walking for Exercise

Exercise Can Make You Happy

By the wlr team

Key Takeaways

  • 15 observational studies all showed a positive association between happiness and exercise
  • Even a small change in physical activity makes a difference to how happy we feel
  • Frequency and volume of exercise are essential factors in the relationship between physical activity and happiness


Research showing that physical activity can reduce depression and anxiety has led to exercise being prescribed to help with these kinds of negative mental health conditions.

However, less is known about the impact of physical activity on positive mental health, such as happiness and contentment.

The researchers for this systematic review examined 23 studies on happiness and physical activity to see if exercise increased positive mental health in the same way it reduced negative mental health.  

Weiyun Chen, lead author of the review, said "Our findings suggest the physical activity frequency and volume are essential factors in the relationship between physical activity and happiness."

"More importantly, even a small change of physical activity makes a difference in happiness."

The research also suggests an upper limit to the effect of physical activity on happiness.

Several of the studies reviewed found that happiness levels were the same whether people exercised 150-300 minutes a week, or more than 300 minutes a week.

The Research

This review was carried out by Weiyun Chen, University of Michigan associate professor in kinesiology, and co-author Zhanjia Zhang, a doctoral student.

Of the 23 studies they reviewed, 15 were observational and 8 interventional.

The researchers examined which aspects of physical activity were associated with happiness, and which populations were likely to benefit from the effects.

The observational studies all showed a positive direct or indirect association between happiness and exercise. The interventional studies showed inconsistent results.

The studies included health information from thousands of adults, seniors, adolescents, children, and cancer survivors from several countries.

The Results

The review of observational studies found that compared to inactive people, the odds ratio of being happy was:

  • 20% higher for people who were insufficiently active
  • 29% higher for people who were sufficiently active
  • 52% higher for people who were very active

Several studies reviewed the relationship between physical activity and happiness in youth:

  • One study found that young people who engaged in physical activity once a week compared to none had 1.4 times the odds of being happy if they were normal weight, and 1.5 times the odds if overweight.
  • Another study found that adolescents who were physically active at least twice a week had significantly higher happiness than those who were active once or less a week.
  • An additional study found that college students who participated in physical activity had 1.3 times the odds of being happy than peers who didn't participate.

Three studies looked at happiness and activity in older adults:

  • One found that exercise was associated with happier adults.
  • Another found that total minutes of exercise per week was positively related to happiness.
  • However, the findings suggest happiness was mediated by health status and/or social functioning.

Three studies looked at special populations:

  • Among ovarian cancer survivors, meeting the 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity was significantly associated with happiness level.
  • In children and adolescents with cerebral palsy, physical activity predicted happiness level, and among drug abusers, the number of weekly exercise sessions, regardless of intensity, was slightly associated with happiness.

In the intervention studies, physical activity included:

  • Aerobic exercise
  • Mixed school activity classes
  • Stretching and balance exercises
  • 30 to 75 minutes from one to five times a week
  • For 7 weeks to a year

Four of the intervention studies showed a significant difference in change of happiness between intervention group and control group, and three did not.

Review Limitations

The review only looked at articles in peer-reviewed journals in English, which could lead to publication bias and overestimating the positive relationship between physical activity and happiness.

Because there were limited randomized control trials, the researchers could not establish causation between happiness and physical activity.

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A systematic review of the relationship between physical activity and happiness Zhanjia Zhang, Weiyun Chen

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