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Move Your Body. Improve Your Mood!

Person stretching at a beach with sunset in background

The Centers for Disease Control and the American College of Sports Medicine recommend “30 minutes or more of moderately intense physical activity on most, if not all, days of the week” for the best health.

By Hank Winkenwerder, PT, MPT, Physical Therapy and Carey Pawlowski, Ph.D, Psychology
Friday, January 23, 2015

It’s hard to argue with the fact that regular exercise can improve your physical health. Both the Centers for Disease Control and the American College of Sports Medicine recommend “30 minutes or more of moderately intense physical activity on most, if not all, days of the week” for the best health.

But is there any proof that exercise can improve our mood? This is an important question as we head into the cold (and hopefully rainy!) winter in California.

As the days grow shorter, the family closer, and the joints creakier, we need all the emotional help we can get. Research shows that exercise can increase our overall thinking ability, decrease fatigue, decrease stress, and improve mood. A recent study published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience found that even simple exercise (such as walking 45 minutes a day three times a week) can improve memory, decision-making, and other mental functions. In another study, it was found that exercise by itself had an even more lasting effect than anti-depressants alone after six months of treatment, though the medications worked more quickly and the combination of both was best overall.

Exercise improves your ability to fight illnesses plus increases the level of  “feel good” chemicals in the brain, which partly explains the idea of a “runner’s high.” Other research has shown that exercise increases serotonin (a brain chemical that balances our mood) as well as proteins which support the growth of brain cells. Still other researchers suggest that exercise helps our brains by normalizing sleep/wake cycles as well as encouraging good fatigue for more natural sleep, which is known to have protective effects on your brain.

From a behavioral point of view, exercise or play can take us away from our worries. Additionally, an exercise routine can also help to increase one’s outlook on life by including meaningful activity, as well as by creating a sense of success. We also know how our body and brain respond to stress is controlled by activity. “Exercise may be a way of biologically toughening up the brain so stress has less of a central impact,” Michael Otto, Ph.D. says.

Here are some tips on how to be successful with adding some movement into your day:

1) Start with something you like. Walking, swimming, biking, yard work, lifting moderate weights, or group sports are all good activities. If it’s fun, you’ll stick with it more days of the week. Having a friend to exercise with also helps, both with motivation and positive distractions.

2) Progress slowly. If you are slightly sore, aware of muscles you didn’t remember, or had slept well the night after you exercised - those are good signs. No pain is great gain!

3) Think outside the box. Moving your body is a treat. For some reason, men seem to respond better to yoga than some other exercises. This may be due to the relaxing nature, plus the fact it’s not a win/lose activity. Instead of a possible sadness of defeat such as “I didn’t catch the ball” or “I can’t run like I could when I was in the military”, the focus is on a task completed.

4) Moderation is the key. You may wonder how much movement is enough to get better? In a recent study in Health Psychology, researchers found that even 10 minutes of moderate exercise (with some effort/sweat) was enough to feel somewhat better, with people feeling even better after 20 minutes of movement. Further, 30 minutes of moving was best, though if exercise turns out to be very tiring, the good mood did not come on until after 30 minutes of rest. That’s yet another reason to exercise moderately.

According to Michael Otto, Ph.D, “Failing to exercise when you feel bad is like not taking an aspirin when your head hurts. That’s when you get the payoff.”  What is good for the body is good for the brain. So get out, get moving, and feel better!

This article and additional health news can be found in our quarterly To your Health Newsletter.

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