Exercise and Feelings of Well-Being

Happy Runners Blog

We are constantly reminded of all the physical benefits that are associated with exercise. However, there is also strong evidence that exercise can improve our mood. In a recent post, I talked about strategies for coping with stress. The year has gotten off to a stressful start for me, and I have been doing my best to stay positive and keep on moving forward. My work schedule has exploded in the New Year and it’s been tough for me to find the time to exercise. Yep, it’s the same excuse I have heard many times from other people. I just knew I needed to make exercise a priority if I wanted to stay healthy and handle the stress.  I started scheduling my exercise sessions into my work calendar, and I found that if it was in my schedule, I had a much higher rate of adherence. Currently, I have been lifting weights and conditioning three to four days a week.  Although, it’s not necessarily ideal, I do my cardiovascular conditioning right after my weight training workout. I don’t have the time to do two separate workouts.  My conditioning workouts consist of the following: six to twelve reps of fast 50 meter sprints, six to fourteen 110 yard relaxed wind sprints, and a 2 to 3 mile run. Since I have added the conditioning element to my workouts, I have noticed a greater positive effect upon my mood and my ability to deal with stress. Let’s look at some of the ways we can get the most psychological benefits from exercise.

The research appears to identify aerobic exercise as a key to unlocking our feelings of well-being, but there is also some research linking resistance training to these good feelings too. A meta-analysis of 36 studies titled Physical Activity and Psychological Well-Being in Advanced Age showed that aerobic exercise was most beneficial for improving well-being in older adults without clinical disorders. Here is another study out of the Perceptual and Motor Skills journal that revealed a beneficial effect on mood from aerobic exercise in adult women.  My wife is an accountant and every start of a new tax season signals a massive increase in work hours and stress. She has always felt that aerobic exercise has benefited her the most during this stressful period of work. A few years ago, my wife and I followed some WOD’s from the CrossFit Invictus blog, and while the workouts really packed a punch as far as intensity, my wife didn’t feel the stress relief benefits were as good as going on a run. She mentioned that she almost felt like the workouts exacerbated some anxiety in her. However, a meta-analytic review titled The Effects of Exercise on Mood in Older Adults seemed to single out resistance training as the most beneficial form of exercise for improving mood in older adults. This means probably a mix of both aerobic exercise and resistance training is ideal. I bet it will differ from each individual on which form of exercise works best for them. So this brings up the questions, what type of intensity level and how often is best?

The research also seems to point to low to moderate intensity workouts for improving mood. Another study out of the Perceptual and Motor Skills journal showed that low to moderate intensity exercise improved mood in college joggers. In the previous paragraph, the meta-analysis of 36 studies showing mood enhancing benefits of aerobic exercise for older adults, also identified moderate intensity as the most beneficial.  My son has become the classic teenager that doesn’t want to hang out with his parents and would rather spend time in his room engaging in sedentary activities (video games, TV, etc.) than be active outside. With some strong encouragement from my wife and I, we asked him to go on a hike with us. He fought us on it, but he eventually came with us, and there was a clear improvement in his mood by the time we returned. It is possible that the location of the workouts can also be more beneficial for our mood.  A study in Psychology of Sport and Exercise showed that ”green exercise” produced moderate short term reductions in anxiety. “Green exercise” is exercise done in natural environments. The hike we took with my son in the forest, may have had added mood boosting benefits because we were out in nature.  In a population study out of Finland titled Physical Exercise and Psychological Well-Being which appeared in Preventative Medicine, the study revealed that individuals who exercised two to three times a week suffered from less depression, anger, cynical distrust, and stress than those who exercised less or not at all.

Here is a recap on the keys to getting the most mood boosting effects from our workouts:

  •  Aerobic exercise appears to be the best, but resistance training does the trick in some individuals. Combine them both for the best outcomes.
  • Low to moderate intensity seems to be ideal. Lower intensities work best for physical recovery, and it’s makes sense it would work for mental recovery too. However, if you feel great after blasting a high intensity workout, go for it. Just don’t go to the well too many times or you may end up over-trained.
  • A positive outlook can be acquired from two to three sessions of exercise a week. It doesn’t take much, so don’t tell me you don’t have the time.
  • Exercise in nature when it’s possible. It seems to enhance all the positive benefits of exercise.

Everyone falls into a mental funk from time to time. We have a choice in how we decide to deal with it. We can either retreat from the world, or we can take it head on, be active, and improve our mood.

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