We know that regular exercise is good for our physical and mental health, but less is known about how exercise shapes our personalities. The latest research suggests that exercise could improve our ability to empathize due to increased levels of the hormone oxytocin. As we remain in the throes of a global pandemic, we need empathy now more than ever. Can we train for it? Here is what the research says:

The study, published in 2019, used mice to investigate the effects of regular exercise on oxytocin and empathy levels. Empathy is not a uniquely human quality. Scientists have observed empathy in many animals, including monkeys, dogs, and rodents. Yes, even mice feel empathy.

What is oxytocin?

Oxytocin, sometimes called “the love hormone,” profoundly influences our social behavior and emotions. Produced in the hypothalamus, oxytocin is commonly associated with childbirth and breast-feeding, but is also inextricably linked to trust, sexual activity, relationship-building, generosity and empathy.

Our ability to empathize, to recognize and internalize the feelings of another, is often thought to be an innate quality. However, the notion that regular exercise could increase empathy suggests that it is also a skill we can practice and improve upon, in the same way we train our muscles to get stronger over time.

How can we measure empathy?

Thirty-two adult male and female mice were included in the study. Half of the mice, the experimental group containing an even number of males and females, exercised in plastic running wheels for 6 weeks. The exercise was voluntary. The scientists simply placed a wheel in each cage, allowing the mice to workout whenever they pleased. The control group did not receive an exercise wheel.

After the exercise period, researchers measured the mice’s empathy and anxiety levels, as well as the amount of oxytocin present in their brain and blood. To measure empathy, mice were trained on a “Helping Behavior” test. Each mouse was given the opportunity to open a door and “rescue” another mouse trapped in a cage. Researchers recorded how long it took each mouse to open the door for their cage-mate as a measurement of empathetic behavior.

The results showed that regular aerobic exercise significantly improved empathetic behavior in both males and females.

In response to exercise, researchers saw increased levels of oxytocin in the brain and blood of female mice. Oxytocin levels also increased in male mice, but only in the brain. As expected, both genders in the exercise group demonstrated significantly less anxiety than the control group.

These findings suggest that more oxytocin is associated with less anxiety and more empathy, especially in females.

Researchers did not find the same strong correlation between oxytocin and empathy in male mice, simply because male mice did not produce as much oxytocin as females. However, males still demonstrated considerably more empathetic behavior after exercise. This indicates that exercise sparks other internal mechanisms which increase empathy and reduce anxiety.  

Oxytocin is only one piece of the puzzle, and we still have much more to learn. In the meantime, until we know exactly how it happens, we know that exercise does increase empathy—and that’s good news.