Exercise & Emotions – The Scientific Link Between Being Active & Being Happy
You know it, and so do I – that dewy blissed out glow you get after a great workout, or a sweaty vinyasa class. It’s more than just a temporary, feel good fix – exercise has a real and profound effect on your mood. The exceptional mood enhancing benefits of exercise has become one of my primary motivations for staying active.
About 2 years ago, I made a pledge to myself and it went a little something like this:
“I will never again exercise, or make food choices, that are based solely on improving my physical appearance.”
This might sound a little strange, given the vast array of physical benefits of exercising and eating healthy – but I was dealing with a whacked out inner critic, and I needed to do something dramatic to put her in her place.
So there I was – under a self-imposed ban on using my physical appearance as a motivation for exercise. What happened next isn’t surprising, I stopped exercising (aside from yoga) for about 18 months. However, in that time I learned to love and accept my body in it’s natural form – fat days, skinny days – all of it.
A few months ago in my much healthier more self-compassionate mental state, I felt ready to approach exercise again – so I started to look for reasons other than having a flat belly, or tight ass to exercise. And then I remembered one of the most memorable and exciting aspects of my entire 5-year psychology degree. I was seated in a lecture hall of about 200 other students as we learned about a study conducted in 2007 by James Blumenthal, PhD, a clinical psychologist at Duke University. The results blew my mind.
4 months into the study,
“Exercise, he concluded, was generally comparable to antidepressants for patients with major depressive disorder”
(Psychosomatic Medicine, 2007)
Holy shit right?
Do you know how many side effects you risk when you start taking antidepressants? Now, don’t get me wrong – I do think there is a time and a place for mental health meds, but how many people know that exercise can be JUST as effective? I sure as hell didn’t, and at this point I had been studying psychology for 3 years.
So, what does this mean for you and me? Well if you happen to be clinically depressed, talk to your doctor about incorporating exercise into your care plan – and site this study if you need to.
What about anxiety? Anxiety and I have become old friends, luckily she doesn’t come around much any more, but when I started to look into the effects of exercise on anxiety, there is some pretty compelling research there as well. Another study found that exercise can be effective treatment for anxiety, and may even help to prevent it.
Jasper Smits, PhD, Co-Director of the Anxiety Research and Treatment Program at Southern Methodist University in Dallas says
“Activity may be especially important for people at risk of developing anxiety disorder.”
So, it is pretty clear – if you are anxious or depressed, get moving. Start slow, and keep it up. More is not always better. There are mixed findings on what type/duration/amount of exercise is most helpful, so just find something you enjoy and get to it.
But what about the normal ups and downs that we experience as part of every day life?
Well, moving your ass can help you there too – exercise increases our resilience to stress. Stress is something that we ALL deal with at some point or another, and you probably know from your own experience that after a hard day going to a walk or taking a yoga class can make you feel a lot better, the good news is, it can also make you better equipped to deal with future stress.
Michael Lehmann, PhD, a research fellow at the National Institute of Mental Health has begun to study the effects of exercise on mice exposed to social stress.
Lehmann has found that the group of mice that were able to exercise, exhibited much stronger resilience in the face of stress, and were able to bounce back much faster than mice that were not able to exercise.
So, just incase you missed it, here is something to ponder next time you are deciding whether or not to skip that yoga class, or decide to stare at your laptop instead of going for a walk:
Exercise can be just as effective at treating depression as antidepressant medication.
Exercise can help to treat and prevent anxiety.
Exercise can increase our ability to deal with stress, and improve our future resilience to stress.
Got it, good – exercise not only makes you healthier, but happier too!