Current guidelines for exercise tend to revolve around the 150 minutes a week that have been recommended for the last two decades. However, you don’t need to do as much exercise as you think to be happier and healthier – Gretchen Reynolds wrote a pretty decent book about how most of the benefits of exercise can be gleaned in 20 minutes, either all at once or cumulatively through the day. More and more research is coming out that says you don’t have to do much at all, as long as you do some regularly. So, according to science, here’s how much you need to be doing and what makes exercising so great:

  • Endorphins get released when you exercise.

These molecules of happiness help counteract feelings of stress and can make you feel high, and may be responsible for a large number of the benefits of exercise.

  • You’ll sleep better when you exercise regularly.

Better quality sleep has been shown in various studies to aid concentration, memory and health, while making you appear more attractive and feel less stressed, even at just 10 minutes per day.

  • You’ll behave better.

A study of bosses found that those bosses who were regularly physically active had happier employees, who were less likely to report feeling victimised at work. Those bosses who were physically inactive were likely to feel more stressed and take it out on their unsuspecting employees. Exercise regularly, and become a nicer person to be around.

  • You’ll get excited.

When you regularly break a sweat, you’ll feel more excited and enthusiastic about life. One study found that of 190 college students, those who exercised were more optimistic about life (read here about why certain types of optimism are so good for your health and your bank balance). The study also found that any day where participants exercised at a slightly higher intensity than usual, caused an even greater boost to mood for that day.

  • You’ll have more satisfying sex up to a point.

Although light and moderate intensity workout routines have been associated with higher sex drive in men and women, due to the hormone testosterone, these effects go into the negative at high intensity training. Men who train heavily can expect a reduced libido, while women can suffer the same along with the (usually temporary) loss or disruption of their menstrual cycle.

  • You’ll be less likely to die from any cause.

All-cause mortality has been found to be significantly reduced in anyone who exercises regularly, even those who exercise less than the recommended amount of 150 minutes per week of moderate intensity, or 75 minutes per week of intense exercise across 3 sessions. This study found that people who exercised regularly at less than the recommended amount, compared with those who do no regular exercise, were 30% less likely to die from any reason, while those meeting the guidelines were 35% less likely to die from any reason. Other studies have shown similar inverse associations with fitness and mortality.

What to do:

  • Exercise regularly! Get at least one workout in a week where you get a sweat on.
  • Walk walk walk. Happier countries tend to have a higher step count.
  • Park further away from shops, work or home. Remember, exercise can be cumulative, so a brisk walking pace for an extra 2 minutes here and there might be the boost that gets you up to your 20 minutes.
  • Take the stairs instead of the escalator for the same reason.
  • If you’re anybody’s boss, do all your employees a favour and hit the gym.


The First 20 Minutes: The Surprising Science of How We Can Exercise Better, Train Smarter and Live Longer

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