Do you think of yourself as being in the happiness business? Whether you know it or not, you are. Happiness and all its related positive emotions—optimism, purpose, life satisfaction and a sense of well-being, to name a few—are powerfully linked with health (as we reviewed in the June issue of IDEA Fitness Journal). One of the most valuable keys to sustainable happiness may be exercise—bingo! Exercise is your specialty, and understanding the powerful connection between exercise and mood, mental health and the brain can multiply the health benefits your clients experience from their work with you.

Exercising Your Way to Well-Being

Your most important tool for boosting clients’ happiness may also be the most obvious. In her book, The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want (Penguin 2007), researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky notes, “Exercise may well be the most effective instant happiness booster of all activities.”

The landmark study that first reshaped how we think about the connection between exercise and well-being (Blumenthal et al. 1999) found that a group program of aerobic exercise—three supervised 45-minute sessions per week of cycling or walking/jogging at moderate to high intensity for 4 months—was just as effective at treating depression as was Zoloft®, or even a combination of exercise and Zoloft. Even 6 months later, participants who recovered were less likely to relapse into depression if they had been in the exercise group (Babyak et al. 2000).

In another study, a 6-month low-intensity program of walking or resistance/flexibility training reduced depression and increased confidence for sedentary older adults, who then maintained the improvement for a remarkable 5 years (Motl et al. 2005).

A review of over 50 studies confirmed that there is sufficient evidence to show that even single bouts of activity can improve mood, and people who are more active are more likely to rate themselves and their mental well-being more positively (Fox 1999). Ten years later, a review of over 80 studies (Ströhle 2009) concluded that exercise compares favorably with standard psychotherapy for clinical depression—and has proved to be effective for nonclinical populations as well.

The accumulated evidence for exercise’s value in reducing anxiety is also strong. A review of more than 100 studies (Herring, O’Conner & Dishman 2010) concluded that results provide clinicians with solid evidence for recommending exercise to patients as a means of reducing anxiety symptoms.

Research on mind-body exercise also shows mood-enhancing benefits. A recent study (Yeh et al. 2011) evaluated 100 outpatients with systolic heart failure who participated in a group-based 12-week tai chi program. Results showed that patients experienced improvements in mood, exercise self-efficacy and quality of life. Authors concluded that tai chi has potential clinical benefits in these areas.

Another study (Streeter et al. 2010) indicated that a 12-week yoga intervention was associated with greater improvements in mood and anxiety than a metabolically matched walking exercise. The yoga group had positive correlations between changes in mood scales and changes in GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) levels; GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter believed to help calm or relax the brain. This was the first study to demonstrate that higher thalamic GABA levels are associated with improved mood and less anxiety, and the first time that a behavioral intervention (i.e., yoga postures) was associated with a positive correlation between acute increases in thalamic GABA levels and improvements in mood and anxiety scales.

An interesting study (Barton & Pretty 2010) recently affirmed the value of “green exercise,” or exercise done outdoors, to mental health. Authors reviewed 10 studies in which more than 1,200 participants in activities such as gardening, sailing and country walking rated their mood and self-esteem. The findings showed that both areas get a significant boost from as little as 5 minutes of outdoor exercise.

While the link between exercise and a variety of mental health benefits has been established, a great deal of work is still to be done on specific applications for healthcare and fitness professionals. For example, some studies have indicated a link between exercise frequency and well-being. A study (Hassmen, Koivula & Uutela 2000) of 3,403 participants, aged 25–64, found a significant association between increasing frequency of exercise and improved measures of psychological well-being. Physically active participants experienced less depression, less suppressed anger, less cynical distrust and a stronger sense of coherence (confidence that the world is meaningful and explicable) than those who exercised less frequently. Regular exercisers perceived their health and fitness to be better than less frequent exercisers did, and those who exercised at least twice a week reported a greater sense of coherence and a stronger feeling of social integration than their less frequently exercising counterparts.

A study of over 19,000 men and women (Hamer, Stamatakis & Steptoe 2009) showed that any form of daily physical activity was associated with a lower risk of psychological distress. Significant mental health benefits were observed at a minimal level of 20 minutes per week of any physical activity. However, a dose-response relationship was apparent, with moderate reductions in psychological distress resulting from less frequent activity, and greater benefits linked to higher-volume or higher-intensity activity. Different types of pursuits—including domestic tasks (housework and gardening), walking and sports—were all independently associated with lower odds of psychological distress, but the strongest effects were observed with sports.

Changing Brain Activity Through Movement

The million-dollar question is exactly how exercise impacts mood, and some intriguing answers may ultimately lie in emerging human and animal research by neurologists and molecular biologists studying brain chemistry changes induced by physical activity. Exercise has been shown to spur neurogenesis, or neuron regrowth, particularly in the hippocampus, a portion of the brain associated with memory, learning and regulation of emotion.

In a randomized controlled trial with 120 older adults, researchers showed that over a period of a year, aerobic exercise training increased hippocampal volume by 2%, effectively reversing age-related loss in volume by 1–2 years (Erickson et al. 2011).

In a review of over 130 studies (Yau, Lau & So 2011), authors examined possible relationships between exercise-induced hippocampal neurogenesis and stress reduction—and concluded that exercise improves mood and cognition in humans and animals.

In another review of over 100 studies (Voss et al. 2011), aerobically trained older adults were found to have greater increases in brain activity in the frontal and parietal cortices, brain areas important for tasks such as conflict resolution and selective attention. Aerobically trained adults also showed greater reduction in anterior cingulate cortex activation, a brain area involved in conflict and error monitoring; this suggested that aerobic training improves the regulatory response of the prefrontal cortex following signals of conflict from the anterior cingulate. The authors noted that “greater understanding of the role of these factors in the effects of exercise training on brain and cognitive health may also help clarify the relative importance of aerobic fitness gains compared to engaging in physical activity without focus on fitness gains per se.”

Is it possible that as our knowledge increases, the mental health boosts associated with exercise will overshadow the more physical benefits? In Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain (Little Brown 2008), authors John Ratey, MD, and Eric Hagerman summarize research that shows the powerful impact of exercise on everything from mood and stress to learning, attention deficit disorder, addiction, aging and hormonal changes. You can provide a valuable service for clients by talking about the considerable health benefits of happiness and well-being, and by letting them know that physical activity can actually change the infrastructure of the brain and so play an indispensable role in the happiness-health equation.

Training Your Brain to Be Happy

In Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom (New Harbinger 2009), author Rick Hanson, PhD, explains that your brain contains approximately 100 billion neurons that fire an average of 5–50 times a second, sending quadrillions of signals around in your head—the number of possible combinations of these 100 billion neurons firing or not is approximately 10 to the millionth power. Conscious mental events (like becoming happier) are based in part on whether combinations disperse or make lasting circuits.

We already know that exercise creates new neurons—and mental activity also reshapes the brain. One of the most well-known ways of doing this is meditation. A study (Hölzel et al. 2010) found that individuals who meditated for about 30 minutes a day for 8 weeks had measurable changes in gray-matter density in the hippocampus and a reduction of gray matter in the amygdala, the part of the brain associated with anxiety and stress.

Research is increasingly showing how greatly the mind depends on the brain, although we don’t yet know exactly how the brain “makes” the mind—we only know that the two are intricately intertwined. “Exercise is extremely important for the brain, promoting brain health through neurogenesis,” says Hanson. “And we know that mental activity also creates new neural structures. For example, meditation and mindfulness are ways that you can use your mind to change your brain for the better. It’s a two-way street: as your brain changes, your mind changes; and as your mind changes, your brain changes. This means—remarkably—that what you pay attention to, what you think and feel and want, and how you react to things all sculpt your brain in multiple ways.”

Hanson is a neuropsychologist and founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom. He has taught at Oxford, Stanford and Harvard Universities.“There are two kinds of happiness,” he explains. “A surface happiness based on conditions, where you walk outside and it’s a gorgeous day and you’re happy. But conditions come and go. The more important happiness is deep or abiding happiness that is not conditional. With mindfulness, or the skillful use of attention to both your inner and outer worlds, we practice observing and accepting life, rather than identifying with it. Mindfulness acts as a shock absorber or buffer for the brain.”

Hanson describes it this way: “We get caught up in the movie of our life and reacting to all the problems and irritations, but mindfulness can pop us back 20 rows where we can watch the movie with some distance and more enjoyment. Here’s another example: say you get an email that upsets you. With mindfulness, you observe it from a bigger picture perspective and realize there will be a lot more emails and there’s no use getting upset over this one. Mindfulness helps you appreciate that things come and go, and every minute of mindfulness deepens its neural roots, so you have more of a centeredness to help you develop that capacity for abiding, unconditional happiness.”

Hanson notes that all major religions have contemplative aspects that encourage the training of the mind. “Mindfulness has been a huge development in the mental health area, because it gives us more control over our moods and reactions. Mindfulness is grounded in science with research support, and it’s secular—it’s being used in the business sector, athletics and the military. As time goes on, we’re going to need a lot of mindfulness to cope with the rapidly accelerating rate of change in our lives.”

So how do you train your brain—and your clients’ brains—to be more mindful, and ultimately, happier? One technique that Hanson recommends for fitness professionals is detailed in his book Just One Thing: Developing a Buddha Brain One Simple Practice at a Time (New Harbinger 2011). Hanson calls it “taking in the good.” “The brain has a built-in negativity bias,” he explains, citing research (Vaish, Grossmann & Woodward 2008). “It acts like Velcro® for negative thoughts and emotions, and Teflon® for positive ones. This evolved as a mode of survival, but it’s also a way that the brain can actually make you suffer more—it tends to generate a background of anxiety, or foster negative emotions such as anger, depression, guilt and shame. It can highlight losses and failures, exaggerate obstacles and encourage negative judgments.”

One solution is to trick the brain to take in the good—to deeply savor positive experiences. By holding positive experiences in awareness for 10, 20 or even 30 seconds, you can train your brain to remember them, helping to offset the natural inclination to forget the positive and remember the negative.

Hanson explains that a perfect example for fitness professionals is teaching clients to savor the positive rewards of exercise (this has a double bonus, helping with adherence as well as bolstering healthy positivity). For example, a client may feel great after a workout, but she may be much more aware of the challenges (having to get up early, trouble finding parking, worries about cost, etc.) and barely recall the pleasant benefits.

Says Hanson, “You can help her stay with the positive experience by encouraging her to savor how good she feels during or after the workout, asking her questions about her experience or encouraging her to talk or think about her good feelings, such as increases in self-confidence or a sense of accomplishment or self-respect.”

Hanson advises, “Take 30 seconds at the end of a session, whether it’s with an individual or a group, to help clients absorb the positive rewards. You can use a visualization for the good feelings, such as likening them to the warmth of the sun spreading through them on a cold day, or a jewel going into a treasure chest in the heart. The longer that something is held in awareness and the more emotionally stimulating it is, the more neurons that fire, and the stronger the positive memory.”

Helping Your Clients Thrive

Margaret Moore is co-author of the book Organize Your Mind, Organize Your Life (Harlequin/Harvard Health 2012) and co-founder and co-director of the Institute of Coaching at McLean Hospital, an affiliate of Harvard Medical School. She is a biologist with an MBA who became chief executive officer and chief operating officer of two biotech ventures before shifting gears in 2000 to found Wellcoaches Corporation, which has trained more than 6,000 professionals as health and wellness coaches in 33 countries.“Fitness professionals have a unique role to play because the physical aspect is the missing piece in so many positive psychology models,” she notes. “For happiness, you have to have both the physical and the mental.”

Moore prefers the word thriving to happiness. She explains, “For me, it has a deeper and richer meaning, and alludes to the idea that you can feel good and be positive even if you’re not putting on a happy face all the time. When we’re thriving, we’ve identified what sets us on fire, energizes us, makes our eyes light up and makes our spirit light up. I think of thriving as a biological phenomenon, not a psychological one, and our emotions are biological phenomena that come in different flavors.”

Adds Moore, “Positivity is the main variable that drives our resilience to cope with life’s ups and downs. Positive emotions such as love, joy and gratitude don’t just change our mindsets—they change our biochemistries. They help us put hope over fear. Of course, you can’t talk about positivity when you need to be cuing exercises, but you can find ways to make your experiences with clients more positive. Opportunities to be more positive come in all sizes and shapes. You can encourage clients to identify what makes them thrive, and why fitness is meaningful to them. It can be as simple as asking them, ‘Why do you want to be fit?’ You can also help clients identify their strengths and incorporate those into their exercise program—we know that people are happier and feel more competent when they have the opportunity to use their strengths.”

Perhaps one of the most valuable strategies you can use is to be a role model for thriving yourself. “You can work on building caring, positive relationships with your clients and become more aware of the energy you’re putting out there for them. You need to start with yourself. If you’re bored or distracted, that comes through. But if you’ve cultivated a good level of positivity in your own life and bring that to your sessions or classes, it’s infectious.”

A good first step is assessing your positivity ratio, a measure that is discussed in the book Positivity: Top-Notch Research Reveals the 3-to-1 Ratio That Will Change Your Life by Barbara Fred­rickson, PhD (Three Rivers 2009). (A self-assessment tool can be found online at The positivity ratio measures your experience of positive to negative emotions in a day. Fredrickson’s research indicates that a positivity ratio of 3 to 1—three times as many positive emotions as negative ones—is the tipping point for achieving the health benefits that come from positive emotions. Currently, most Americans fall short of it.

“It’s a great way to measure where you are with experiencing positive emotions, so you can begin to build them,” says Moore. “Everyone has their own recipe of what works for them. You don’t want to put pressure on your clients to be more positive; you just want to lightly create an environment for them to thrive.”

Moore also has a useful quick self-assessment test—“Are You Thriving?”—which you and your clients can find at

Developing Positive Fitness

Elaine O’Brien, MAPP, one of IDEA’s very first members and a group fitness instructor and presenter, is a graduate student at Temple University in Philadelphia, studying the psychology of human movement. A University of Pennsylvania Positive Psychology Leader, she presented “Physical Activity, Leadership, and Thriving” at the first International Positive Psychology Conference in China and at Tsinghua University, Beijing.

“As the science of positive psychology comes to the forefront, group instructors, coaches, educators and personal trainers have an exciting challenge,” she says. “We can encourage people not just to move well, but to move with engagement, meaning and joy through their life span. Through movement, we have an incredible opportunity to foster thriving individuals and communities.”

O’Brien is creating interventions for fitness professionals that link physical activity and positive psychology, and she will explore the topic as a presenter at the upcoming Inner IDEA® conference. “We have such an opportunity to merge these fields and explore appreciative movement, sustainability and exercise practices that promote flourishing individuals, groups and communities in the world.”

O’Brien created the unique “Joyful Blessings Day: International Gratitude Experiences,” an example of how fitness professionals can integrate positive psychology elements into a fitness experience. “We asked high-school students to participate with seniors and used a theme of gratitude to bring everyone together.”

The day began with group exercise to music that had joy and gratitude as themes—songs like “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” by Stevie Wonder and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?” by the Beach Boys. Lunch followed with a Native American prayer of gratitude, and the idea of savoring positive emotions was introduced. Students and seniors were encouraged to ask each other questions like these:

  1. What have you been most grateful for earlier in your life?

  3. What makes you happy?

  5. What are you most grateful for today? Can you help somebody else have a similar experience?

  7. What has been a high-point moment today? How can you create more moments like that?

These exchanges were followed by a contemplative parable of gratitude about an Asian woman named Haikun: Every morning Haikun walked a mile to the spring to gather a bucket of water for her family. At the end of the day, she walked back to the spring and returned any leftover water, in gratitude. The day concluded with a “Breath of Thanks” exercise from the book Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier by Robert A. Emmons (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2007). The exercise invites people to bring attention to their breathing and, for five to eight breaths, to say, “Thank you,” silently.

“Gratitude is one of the most powerful interventions for well-being,” says O’Brien. “You can do simple things, such as encourage your students to write a letter of thanks to someone important in their lives.” In addition to gratitude, O’Brien offers these strategies for fostering happiness and well-being in your clients:

Character strength building. En­­­cour­­­age clients to identify their strengths and use them. For more information, see Character Strengths and Virtues by Christopher Peterson and Martin E.P. Seligman (Oxford 2004) and Authentic Happiness by Martin E.P. Seligman (Free Press 2002). Students can also take online tests at, in the Values and Action Inven-tory section, to identify strengths such as wisdom, courage, fairness, leadership, home, humor or spirituality. Encourage your students to use their strengths in new ways every day. It’s important that you know your own strengths, too.

Positive feedback. Acknowledge your clients’ strengths, such as their courage or perseverance. Keep in mind that how you respond to people is critical to their health. Ask questions about the positive things in their lives—help them relive and savor joyful moments.

Meaning-making. Create meaning for your clients by encouraging them to talk about what makes life meaningful for them; by creating meaning together, as a community, through food drives or charitable projects; and by acknowledging meaningful moments, such as anniversaries, graduations or other

Says O’Brien, “My goal is to have my students feel welcome and engaged, and leave class feeling great—and to greet and thank every student. I am aware of gratitude myself. I’m the luckiest person to do the work that I do. There’s such a negativity bias in the world in general. As fitness professionals, we have an opportunity to move toward the joy of life. As IDEA members, we can lead the way for people to thrive physically and mentally, by helping them make that connection between their minds, bodies and spirits. There are so many things we can do to thrive ourselves and to help our clients thrive. We just need to spend more time focusing on the things we can do to lift ourselves up.