Is there an impact?
There’s no question that exercise can have a significant positive impact on your body. You probably can list many of the physical benefits that it can provide. However, it can have an effect on your mental wellbeing too. One thing might seem surprising at first, but after you think about it, doesn’t seem farfetched is the fact that exercise can affect your mood. How does it do this? What type of exercise and for how long is best to get the most gain?
Everyone is aware of the fact that exercise has great physical health benefits, but what most people don’t realize is that exercise is a great way to improve your mood. A recent study of 1.2 million Americans found a positive link between physical activity and mood. The study also found that exercise absolutely has a constructive impact on depression. Researchers reported that, on average, those who exercised regularly had 1.5 fewer poor mental health days in the last month than those who didn’t exercise. The study data also states that people who exercised 30 to 60 minutes saw the best results and had an average of 2.1 fewer poor mental health days than those who don’t exercise. Surprisingly, people who exercised more than three hours a day actually had worse mental health than people who didn’t exercise at all. The study looked at over 75 activities and discovered that team sports, cycling, aerobic exercises and gym activities made the biggest differences in mood.
How does exercise help to improve your mood? Your body produces chemicals, called endorphins, that reduce your perception of pain, improve immunity and help you to relax. These natural mood boosters enhance feelings of optimism and satisfaction. Exercise promotes the creation and release of endorphins. In addition, exercise reduces the activity of hormones, like adrenalin and cortisol, that promote feelings of anxiety and tension. In addition to endorphins, when you exercise, your brain enjoys higher levels of endocannabinoids. These act on the same receptors in your brain as the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, neurotransmitters and other feel-good chemicals. If you exercise frequently, a part of your brain, the dorsal raphe nucleus, becomes altered in a good war. This area of your brain is responsible for producing one of your mood regulating neurotransmitters, serotonin, and for alerting you to the presence of stress in your environment via another neurotransmitter, Substance P. A study done with mice found that those who exercised had greater activity in the infralimbic cortex of their brain. This area is associated with mood control. The exercising mice seemed less depressed than other mice who hadn’t exercised and had less activity in their infralimbic cortex. While humans don’t have this specific section in their brain, we do have a similar region, known as cingulate area 25 or Brodmann area 25, which has been previously linked to depression. Neurologists at Emory University have successfully improved depression in several treatment-resistant patients by using deep-brain stimulation to send steady, low-voltage current into their area 25 region. Another area of critical importance for mental health is the hippocampus. This area of the brain is involved in memory, emotion regulation and learning. Several studies done with animals show considerable evidence that exercise leads to the creation of new hippocampal neurons through a process called neurogenesis. There’s preliminary evidence suggesting this is also true in humans. There are several theories that suggest that new hippocampal neurons are important for storing new memories and keeping old ones separate and distinct from the new ones. Neurogenesis allows for flexibility in processing new information and in the use of existing memories. This is important because increasing amounts of data shows that many mental health conditions are associated with reduced neurogenesis in the hippocampus. This is especially true for depression. A good demonstration of this is that many anti-depressants were once thought to work through their effects on the serotonin system, but are now known to increase neurogenesis in the hippocampus. Another way that exercise is thought to contribute to a calmer mood is due to the slight increase in core temperature that occurs during it, which helps to reduce muscle tension. This helps your muscles to feel more relaxed and your nervous system to be quieter after. Both of these things send signals to your brain that is interpreted as a good feeling. Besides increasing your serotonin and endorphin levels, exercise can reduce immune system chemicals and help get your sleep patterns back to normal. Both of these can cause changes in your body that result in decreasing damage throughout your body. In addition, exercise provides a distraction from your worries and decreases your stress level. According to the Harvard Medical School, walking, stretching, mental exercises, breathing techniques and muscle relaxation techniques can all be effective in combating stress. Since exercise delivers the majority of these things, it’s no wonder that it reduces stress levels. When your stress levels are lower and your body is more relaxed, you can usually think more clearly and make better decisions. A great example of how exercise can give you a positive mood boost is the phenomenon called “runner’s high.” This a feeling of pain reduction that comes after exercise. The good news is that research is finding that you don’t have to run marathons to get these benefits, even low-impact activities can make a difference. Most people get that mood-enhancement about five minutes after they are finished moderately exercise and it usually lasts for a while. For some people, pushing through a workout makes them feel better about themselves and reinforces the concept that you can be successful in challenging situations. For these individuals, they find that the harder the workout, the better their mood is afterwards.
People who exercise regularly have fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety than those who don’t. Given the latest research, it’s thought that exercise could be just as effective as anti-depressants in treating mild-to-moderate depression. Exercise helps in not only treating depression, but also in preventing people from becoming depressed again. This is why it’s important for people who experience depression to keep up with an exercise regimen after they start feeling better. Both aerobic exercise and strength training have been found to be helpful. The current recommendations are to participate in three or more aerobic exercise or resistance training sessions per week for 45 to 60 minutes per session. Studies are finding that it takes about four weeks for effects to be noticed, which incidentally is how long neurogenesis takes. Training should be continued at least for 10-12 weeks to get the greatest outcome. Researchers are also looking into using exercise as a way for treating, and possibly preventing, anxiety. When we feel anxious, our nervous system gets fired up and sets off a cascade of reactions, such as sweating, dizziness and a racing heart. When exercising, the body produces many of the same physical reactions, like heavy perspiration and increased heart rate. This is why doing regular workouts might help people who are prone to anxiety to become less likely to panic when they experience those sensations. Essentially, it’s training people to associate the symptoms with safety instead of danger.
Another area of growing research is “green” exercise, or working out in nature. When we’re indoors, we’re naturally tempted to be more sedentary by doing activities on our phones, computer or television. By going outside, we can eliminate those distractions. Several studies have found that exercising even for five minutes in nature can lift your mood. There are many benefits to exercising outside. One thought is that exposing your body to plants can improve your immune system because airborne chemicals from plants can protect us against some bacteria and viruses. Exposure to natural light is also key. It’s known to lift people’s moods and exposing your body to sunlight is a great way to get the vitamin D that your body needs. Vitamin D helps your body prevent a wide range of conditions, such as osteoporosis, cancer, heart attacks and depression. It only takes exposing your arms and legs to sunshine for 10 – 15 minutes a few times a week to help your body can make all the vitamin D it needs. Some recent studies reported that people who walk outside have a higher level of energy, enthusiasm, pleasure and self-esteem. They also have lower levels of tension, depression and fatigue. Other research discovered that children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are able to concentrate more easily after walking through a park when compared to walking through a residential neighborhood. If you exercise outside, you’re more likely to exercise again than those who stay inside. Furthermore, not only will you exercise more often, but it’ll be for longer periods of time.
Physiologically, there are many things that can impact mood, so researchers don’t know yet exactly which types of exercise are most effective or how much is necessary to get the most positive benefit. There is some thought that family history and gender might play a role. Studies have shown that aerobic exercise tends to trigger the release of more upbeat brain chemicals than anaerobic workouts. However, the best type of workout is one that you actually do because any form of physical activity is better than none. Even a 10-minute walk around the block is enough to increase your blood flow and gives you a chance to mentally regroup and improve your mood. With keeping this in mind, how you structure your workout, such as how long and how hard, can enhance the post-exercise mood boost. Psychology plays a key role. A study done by the University of Wisconsin demonstrated that people were in a better mood after exercising when they picked their own intensity level instead of being told to do a specific moderate-effort workout. Once you find an activity you enjoy, in order to get a significant mood boost, you need to exercise for at least 20 minutes. It’s not harmful to exercise longer as long as you’ve got the endurance and don’t get sore the more you exercise. In fact, endorphin levels really ramp up after about an hour of moderate aerobic exercise and actually increase exponentially after that. Exercise leads to both types of good moods: positive high activation, which is feeling alert, excited and happy, and positive low activation, which is feeling calm, content and relaxed. The key to achieving either one of these depends on the intensity of your workout. Higher-intensity workouts help you to blow off steam while exercising and enjoy the “endorphin high” after. Light-intensity workouts are better when you’re feeling fatigued and need to decompress. With experience, most people learn how to match their pre-exercise mood to the workout intensity that will give them the best post-exercise mood.
All of this information begs the question that if exercise makes us feel this good, then why is it so hard to do it? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the data from 2008 (the most recent year for which it’s available) shows that about 25% of the US population said that they have zero leisure-time physical activity. There are several reasons for this. Often when people start an exercise program, they try to do too much too soon. Typically, when people do this, they give up easily and don’t stick with the routine. This is why experts usually say to start slowly and choose a moderate exercise plan. Another issue is the emphasis on the physical effects of exercise. Many doctors frequently tell patients that they need to exercise in order lose weight, lower cholesterol or prevent diabetes. All of these conditions require months of regular exercise before you start seeing any definite physical results. Since the results aren’t instantaneous, people have a tendency to give up. The exercise mood boost offers this near-instant gratification that many people desire. So, it might be helpful in getting people to comply with exercise regimens if this was mentioned in the discussion between patients and their doctors. Also, your brain actually has a neat trick to help you get back on track. When you have even small improvements in exercise levels or diet, it creates a positive upward spiral that increases the sensitivity of the dopamine receptors that signal reward in your brain. This means that exercise will eventually become rewarding, so you’ll want to do it more in order to get that same feeling. An additional issue is that many people skip the workout when they are in a bad mood or feel tired, which is the very time it would do the most good. By not exercising, you don’t notice just how much better you’d feel after you exercise. Some people feel better after a morning workout that puts them in a better mood as they start their day. Other people feel that they benefit from a post-work exercise session to help them relieve the stress from the day. The vital thing is to try to stay as flexible as possible because one survey found that people who normally exercised at the same time of day wouldn’t work out if they missed their usual window. However, the same study also found that those who weren’t tied to a specific time had greater overall exercise consistency.
The exercise-mental health connection is becoming hard to ignore. There’s no question that regular exercise can help you achieve a happier state of mind and a better quality of life. The key thing is that the exercise has to be something that you enjoy because you’ll be less likely to stick with it if you don’t.