When Less is More

Working out harder may not be working out better. Find out why.

By Dinha Kaplan, published May 1, 1997 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

A vigorous workout may make you feel better about your body, but it may not leave you feeling better emotionally. According to Robert Motl, a doctoral student at the University of Utah, people who exercise intensely don't enjoy the mood boost that those who exert themselves at a more moderate pace do.

Unless you're a pro athlete, the physical and psychological benefits of exercise are most apparent if your workout gets your heart beating to within 50 to 70 percent of its maximum rate, says Motl. (A man's maximum heart rate is 220 beats per minute minus his age; a woman's is 200 minus her age.) In one study, Motl found that cyclist report being less depressed, angry, and confused after biking at a moderate rate for one hour. But a second group of cyclists who completed a more intense workout--one that pushed their pulse to 90 percent of its maximum rate--didn't enjoy those benefits. And those in a third group that strained to their absolute limit actually felt worse afterward. "Anytime you exercise to exhaustion," says Motl, "you're not going to be in a better mood."

Ideally, he adds, people should work out for at least 30 minutes three or four times a week. Can't find that much time? Robert Thayer, Ph.D., a psychologist at California State University, Long Beach, finds that people enjoy mood improvements after they've walked for as little as 10 minutes. And since each exercise session can lift your spirits for as long as two to four hours, three brief walks scattered through your daily schedule can keep you feeling good all day.