Get Active to Get Happy: Why Exercise “Works”

If you’ve leafed through my book or spent more than a few seconds on my website, I’m willing to bet that you’ve seen what I call my “Twelve Weeks to Living a Happier Life.” This program is based on my belief that our happiness (or unhappiness) is based largely on the choices we make regarding our actions, habits, attitudes, thoughts, and priorities. (If you missed it, I blogged about choosing happiness HERE.) Since my “Twelve Weeks” are such a big part of my own life, I’m going to blog about each week’s happiness-boosting change. First up is exercise!

Everywhere you look, our culture bombards us with the topic of exercise, from infomercials touting the latest piece of home-gym equipment to fliers in the mailbox advertising a gym’s grand opening. No matter how sick you are of hearing that you ought to be more active, please bear with me for a few paragraphs, because while I agree with that advice completely, I’m not as concerned with your muscle definition as I am with your mindset.

In a nutshell, I think that physical activity is the single most effective thing you can do right this minute to make yourself happier and much less stressed. I’ve actually been living by this principle for most of my life, though I didn’t realize it until after my breakdown. I was a very athletic kid growing up, and as an adult I’ve always hit the gym on a near-daily basis…until I fractured both of my feet at age thirty-six. This forced inactivity was one of several “triggers” that sparked my breakdown!

Turns out that exercise makes you feel more relaxed, stronger, and more capable of handling life’s challenges. It is also scientifically proven to improve your sleep, and it functions as a natural anti-depressant that will help your attitude and outlook. No wonder I felt unable to handle my stress after I was sidelined by fractures! My single most important coping mechanism was suddenly out of my reach.

I now know that even if you’re not living an out-of-balance lifestyle (as I was before my breakdown), exercise can still do quite a bit to improve your attitude and outlook. In addition to the benefits I listed above, physical activity actually opens you up to future change by invigorating your mind and body. (In fact, my coauthor, Dr. Howard Rankin, who is a licensed clinical psychologist, tells his patients he won’t see them for any reason—whether it’s depression, marriage counseling, or something else—unless they agree to start exercising first.) And as time passes, you’ll gain the added bonus of being happier with your physical appearance as well.

No matter what your current attitude toward exercise is, I recommend that everyone make it a part of their routines (if it isn’t already). And there’s no need to sign up for a boot camp-like class at the gym or hire a personal trainer, either. Actually, that would be a bad idea because the key to making an exercise program successful is to make it doable. Don’t force yourself to do too much too soon.

To start, try taking just a twenty-minute walk every other day. Even better, bring your spouse and/or your children along on your walks. In addition to spending more time together, you’ll be instilling great life habits in your kids. If you make activity a regular part of your life, so will they…and unfortunately, the same goes for living life as a couch potato.

Ultimately, no matter when, where, or with whom you choose to be active, the point is: Don’t make exercising such a big deal that you stall at the starting line. I promise you, you’ll be surprised at what a big difference this first step makes if you keep at it!