Study: Running May Make You Happy

In a study, runners were better at managing emotions and overcoming sadness.

Chances are, you’ve got that friend. The one who loves running so much, she gladly jumps out of bed at 5 a.m. to jog before work; the one who runs marathons without even being dared to do so; the one who can talk about runners’ highs for hours. (Since this is Boston, there’s a good chance you are that friend.)

Turns out, she may be on to something. A study from two Harvard psychologists suggests aerobic exercise helps people regulate their emotions and overcome sadness.

The researchers had 80 people—40 men and 40 women—participate in a multi-part test. First, all 80 completed an emotion state questionnaire. Then, half the group went on a 30-minute jog, while the other half completed 30 minutes of stretching. Afterward, they took a 20-minute online survey about emotion. Next, everybody was shown a clip from The Champ meant to induce sadness, before taking the emotional analysis again. Finally, they watched a clip from When Harry Met Sally meant to spark happiness, before again taking an emotion test.

When all was said and done, the researchers found that the people who jogged seemed to be better at recovering from sadness than the group that stretched, though running didn’t help prevent sadness in the first place. Overall, the runners “reported less sadness at the end of the study than those who did not exercise.”

That runners’ high, the psychologists conjecture, may be caused by cognitive enhancements that come from aerobic exercise, or the mood boost that often goes hand-in-hand with completing a hard task.

It’s worth noting that none of the study participants were clinically depressed, and that all of them were somewhat regular exercisers, both of which could skew the data a bit. The researchers also noted in the study that future research will need to look at longer bouts of exercise, and at emotions other than sadness.

Still, next time you feel a crying jag coming on, it can’t hurt to reach for your running sneakers instead of a chocolate bar. Your body—and your mind—may thank you.