Exercise Has a Cascade of Positive Effects, Study Finds

By Deborah Gage

Updated June 25, 2017 11:59 p.m. ET

Exercise has been shown to protect against diabetes, stroke and several other diseases and to improve our moods. 

But does it also make us more likely to engage in other activities? Do people who exercise tend to have better social lives or achieve more of their goals?

The answer appears to be yes, according to a study that has been accepted for publication in the journal Personality and Individual Differences. Exercise not only makes us feel more positive, the study found, but it also increases the likelihood that we’ll do more positive things. 

That supports the use of exercise to help treat people with depression, anxiety and other illnesses. It also suggests exercise could help healthy people improve their everyday lives.

The team of researchers at George Mason University recruited 179 college students from northern Virginia and asked them to record their exercise every day for 21 days. The students were asked each day if they had participated in any of eight activities including cycling, weight training or swimming, along with an “other” activity in case theirs wasn’t listed.

They were also asked if they’d had positive social interactions each day with friends, dates, family members or other people, or if they’d achieved something they wanted to get done, such as completing a project.

The students rated the importance to them of both types of activities on a scale of 1 to 4. 

The results: On a given day, students who exercised also tended to participate in more social and achievement activities than on days when they didn’t exercise, the study found, and they engaged in activities that tended to matter to them more. 

In addition, exercise on one day predicted positive social activity on the next day, but not achievement activity. 

The researchers also found that positive social and achievement activities on one day didn’t predict exercise on the next day. 

The results support an approach to treating depression called behavioral activation. 

“When we become depressed or whatever it is we’re going through, we say to ourselves that we’ll get out when we feel better,” says Kevin Young, the study’s lead author, who is completing his doctorate in clinical psychology at George Mason University. “Unfortunately, what we also see is that we do not feel better until we get out.” 

Mr. Young, who will be a clinical psychologist, adds, “We try and help someone start sprinkling activities again into their lives. That will result in improvement in mood, and [positive] emotion will follow.”

Mr. Young is now thinking about ways the study could be expanded. Does exercising with a group have a different impact on other activities than exercising alone? Can exercise affect future negative as well as positive activities? How much time do we have to spend exercising before positive activities follow?

And what is the mechanism that makes exercise work this way? Is it the improved mood after we exercise that leads us to have better relationships and get more done, or is it an improved sense of self-esteem?

Although he emphasizes that the study was done on healthy people who weren’t screened for depression, Mr. Young says he’s now more inclined to have his patients use exercise to help them re-engage with activities they enjoy. Depression, he says, saps people’s energy and makes them fatigued.

“It’s torture,” he says. “Exercise is one method of intervention we have.”