Background: Recreational exercise and mood have frequently been correlated in population studies. Although it is often assumed that recreational exercise improves mood, this has not been consistently demonstrated in population studies.
Method: The relationship between mood and exercise was studied prospectively in a community sample. A series of synchronous panel models was constructed in two samples (2798 paired observations; sample I = 1219, sample II = 1498) to examine this relationship in the entire population, for women and men separately, for those with sedentary occupations, for those performing physical labour, and for those who initially showed a more dysphoric mood.
Results: Although mood and exercise were correlated, the only directional relationship that could be demonstrated was that recreational exercise had an inconsistently positive effect upon mood in those with sedentary occupations. There was no such relationship between doing physical work and mood. Analyses of those who initially showed higher levels of dysphoria did not uncover any directional relationship between mood and exercise. None of the other subgroups showed any directional effects between mood and recreational exercise, nor did the population as a whole.
Conclusion: The relationship between exercise and mood in this population sample appears to be largely correlational in nature. This result suggests the need to take a cautious view of the role played by exercise in promoting mood in the general population.