Many of us who exercise do so for aesthetic or cosmetic reasons: to look good, to impress, to turn heads. This makes sense. The first and most noticeable changes resulting from physical activity are, after all, cosmetic. And it is far easier to evaluate the success of exercise based on our physical sensations and developments than on our mental or emotional ones. Noticing abdominal soreness takes far less time and cognitive strain (that is, easier to identify) than noticing boosts in mood. However, the effects that exercise has on our mental health, particularly mood, are striking. Understanding how physical activity strengthens our mood may keep us going to the gym long after the allure of turning heads has weakened.
Exercise seems to be the best preventive drug available for a number of health problems. Studies show that exercise reduces the risk of early death, heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes. It also improves sleep, memory and concentration, as well as lowers the risk of depression and anxiety disorders. In fact, exercise is as good as medication or psychotherapy in the treatment of mild and moderate depression. Some experts speculate that the benefits of exercise in treating depression is related to perceptions about control: those who engaged min exercise felt that they were doing something directly about their depression and therefore, had control over their wellness. When we feel confident that our actions are creating change, we gain a feeling of power, competence and self-worth, and we are likely to stick with those actions.
Our mood improves with the minimization of stress, and exercise plays a large role in reducing stress-related issues. Physical exercise actually creates biochemical changes in the brain that protect it and prevent it from being damaged during stress. Exercise produces a beneficial decrease in perceived stress—that is, we tend to view our lives as less stressful—when we engage in exercise routinely, for at least several weeks. However, the effect of even a single session of exercise has been shown to improve mood and reduce subjective symptoms of anxiety.
In addition to mood-boosting benefits repeatedly found in studies of regular exercise, removing exercise from our lives has been shown to negatively impact mood. For instance, researchers have tested volunteers who were accustomed to working out six days a week. After skipping two workouts, all experienced one or more of a variety of mood swings, including depression, anxiety, confusion and sluggishness. Resuming their exercise routine improved their mood immediately. While many of us find it difficult and irritating to stray from our routines, another valid interpretation of this is that exercise activates the pleasure circuits of the brain and seems to trigger the release of chemicals called endorphins, leading to a level of relaxation. Removing exercise, then, may elicit the mood swings.
For the aging population as well, participation in physical activity has mood-enhancing qualities. High levels of cardio-respiratory fitness can protect the brain’s structure and function and may delay the onset of age-related cognitive decline, which is linked to mood.
We take ownership of what we’re doing when we know the “why” behind our actions. All exercisers should firmly understand the benefits that accompany the physical activity of choice, and that means the mental and emotional improvements in addition to the physical benefits. While a single exercise session may have positive effects on mood, chances are we will begin to feel the effects after some consistent and regular exercise.
Stay the Course and Enjoy the Journey