Coaching

The Best Workout for Your Mood

Different types of movement have different positive effects on your state of mind. Follow this training roadmap to lift your spirits, stat.

Last updated: March 24, 2021
The Best Workout for Your Mood

If you think endorphins are to thank for the emotional high you experience after exercising, you’re not wrong. But you’re not totally right either.

Endorphins are natural painkillers that get released in the brain when your body is under stress, says Tiina Saanijoki, PhD, a neuroscientist and research manager at the University of Turku and Åbo Akademi University in Finland. People often think endorphins kick in with any type of exercise. The truth is, they come into play only during activity done at certain intensities or for certain durations, and those specs differ person to person, says Saanijoki. (In Saanijoki’s recent study, her team found that a brief bout of HIIT triggered more of an endorphin rush than an hour of moderately intense cycling did. And some participants saw a surge in endorphins at lower intensities than others did.)

“Endorphins come into play only during activity done at certain intensities or for certain durations, and those specs differ person to person.”

Tiina Saanijoki, PhD, Neuroscientist

But don’t worry: An endorphin rush is just one way movement can boost your mood and decrease downer feelings. You can also put yourself in a better headspace by performing activities that prompt other positive responses, including the release of “happy hormones” and an instant shot of energy.

Not sure which physical pursuit is best for whichever mental state you feel stuck in right now? Consider this, from experts who feel all the feels too, your guide.

The Best Workout for Your Mood

1. When You’re Feeling Down and Out: Steady-State Cardio

When you’re feeling low, a high-energy workout is sometimes (OK, probably most of the time) the last thing you’re in the mood for. Good news: You don’t necessarily need one. While going for an easy jog or fast walk might not flood you with euphoric endorphins, it can push play on other feel-good chemicals, like dopamine and serotonin, says Wendy Suzuki, PhD, a professor of neural science and psychology at New York University. Dopamine also increases when you eat that mouthwatering food that you’ve been craving, see a new like on social media, or have sex, she says, while serotonin rises when you laugh or feel sunshine on your skin. In other words, these chemicals, often called happy hormones, are legit mood boosters.

Whatever cardio you choose, keep after it for at least 10 minutes, says Suzuki, which is when the effects tend to kick in.

2. When You’re Feeling Frustrated: HIIT

Raise your hand if you’ve ever taken anger out on a punching bag or slam ball. Everybody? Thought so. That’s because “letting it all out” as you go all out during exercise kicks off a chemical reaction — a trifecta of endorphins, serotonin and dopamine — that can help you cope by squashing frustrating feelings, says Suzuki. Plus, the focus required to finish a challenging workout can take your mind off your problems, adds Saanijoki.

Just be careful not to push too far past your usual effort level: Saanijoki’s research has found that going overboard can increase negative feelings, not to mention pain. Why? Exercise is still a form of stress on your body, so when the going gets too tough, that sweet relief at the end might not seem worth it, leaving you bummed out, says Saanijoki. You probably know your limits, but in case you’re still figuring them out, one study found that pushing your heart rate over 90 percent of its max for more than 40 minutes a week is linked to irritability and can increase your risk of injury.

3. When You’re Feeling Wildly Stressed: Weightlifting

For those moments your mind is moving faster than Mat Fraser can cycle a barbell, pick up, well, a barbell. “Strength training can be particularly grounding and bring you back into the present moment, especially when you’re working with heavy weight,” says Laura Khoudari, a certified personal trainer who works with clients who are healing from trauma and chronic stress and the author of “Lifting Heavy Things.” To safely and efficiently lift heavy, you have to be so mindful of your form and how your body feels that your brain doesn’t have much room to think about anything else, explains Khoudari. Even if you’re not lifting strongman-style, moving slowly and tuning into the working muscle group (for example, feeling your biceps contract with every curl) can help quiet anxious feelings, she says.

Whatever you’re working with, slow down by counting through the phases of each rep. For instance, if you’re on a squat set, spend 3 seconds on the way down, then stand up and pause for a second at the top. And be sure to cool down with 5 minutes of stretching (especially forward folds) or steady-state cardio to activate your parasympathetic nervous system (your “rest and digest” mode). Both can ease your mind and body into a more relaxed state, says Khoudari.

One more thing: Resistance training can reduce overall levels of anxiety symptoms, according to research. There are several possible reasons, but a top one is that strength training may lead to improved regulation of the system that handles all those happy hormones, which could help you better handle stress over time.

4. When You’re Feeling Self-Critical: Hatha Yoga

Ever heard of power poses, stances that give you an instant surge of strength, energy and confidence? While the mechanisms of how they work are still a bit unclear, researchers have found that expansive postures (think standing tall with your hands on your hips) can have a physiological and behavioral effect that can increase your feelings of power and risk tolerance. Turns out yoga poses, particularly when held for just 2 minutes, can be beneficial too, increasing your self-esteem and energy, per other research.

So on a particularly blah day, be gentle and try a Hatha flow. This practice emphasizes holding static poses, giving you enough time to settle into your sense of strength and stability.

5. When You’re Feeling Tired and Cranky: Dance Cardio

Whether you’re drained from staring at your computer all day or you just woke up feeling groggy and grumpy, a quick dance party might be just what you need to put some pep in your step.

Unlike, say, a steady-state treadmill run, “dance involves complex movements that require considerable efforts to learn and employ them properly,” says Soon-Mi Choi, PhD, an associate professor of athletic training and exercise physiology at Midwestern State University. “Learning how to combine dance steps requires practice, concentration and memory, resulting in improved processing speed.” Not to mention, dancing to your favorite songs is, for most people, enjoyable — so much so that a mood shift could happen in just 10 minutes, says Choi.

While science supports the feel-good effects of these activities, if you’re craving something different, by all means, you do you. No matter what your mood, any exercise is better than none, with or without that flood of endorphins.

Words: Adele Jackson-Gibson
Illustration: Jon Krause

The Best Workout for Your Mood

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