Dozens of studies have found that exercising can lift your spirits by boosting levels of serotonin — the “feel good” hormone — but a study from the University of Connecticut shows the exercise doesn’t have to leave you sweating and panting for breath. If you spend hours at your desk at work or sit at home watching television, just getting up and moving around can reduce depression and make you feel better about yourself.
“We hope this research helps people realize the important public health message that simply going from doing no physical activity to performing some physical activity can improve their subjective well-being,” says study lead author Gregory Panza.
“What is even more promising for the physically inactive person is that they do not need to exercise vigorously to see these improvements,” Panza continues. “Instead, our results indicate you will get the best ‘bang for your buck’ with light or moderate-intensity physical activity.”
Light physical activity is the equivalent of taking a leisurely walk around the mall with no noticeable increase in breathing, heart rate, or sweating, said Linda Pescatello, senior author of the study that was published in the Journal of Health Psychology.
Moderate intensity activity is equivalent to walking a 15-20-minute mile with an increase in breathing, heart rate, and sweating, yet still being able to carry on a conversation. Vigorous activity is equivalent to a very brisk walk or jogging a 13-minute mile with a very noticeable increase in breathing, heart rate, and sweating to the point of being unable to maintain a conversation.
The study tracked the movements of 419 middle-aged adults for four days and then asked them to fill out questionnaires including exercise habits, depression, pain levels, and feelings of well-being.
Researchers found that those who were most sedentary were the least happy. Overall, physical activity improved their sense of well-being. But different levels of physical activity helped some people more than others.
People who were sedentary and engaged in light or moderate physical exercise showed the greatest improvement in their sense of well-being.
“The ‘more is better’ mindset may not be true when it comes to physical activity intensity and subjective well-being,” says Panza. “In fact, an ‘anything is better’ attitude may be more appropriate if your goal is a higher level of subjective well-being.”
Most previous studies found that although exercise increased serotonin levels, the most effective exercises were aerobic, like running, swimming and biking.
There are other simple ways that are clinically proven to increase serotonin levels including massage and getting enough sunlight.