Does exercise really lift our mood?

exercising

It’s an uncomfortable truth, but there’s no escaping it: Most of us aren’t getting enough exercise.

The latest figures from America’s National Center for Health Statistics show that less than half (49%) of American adults do the recommended amount of aerobic physical activity (30 minutes of moderate exercise most days) while only one-fifth (20.9%) meet the recommended level of both aerobic physical and muscle-strengthening activity (strength training two to three days per week).

Of course while America is a useful guide, this is by no means a US-centric problem – these figures are very much in line with what we see across the world. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), globally one in four adults are not active enough.

Here in the UAE, the Dubai Health Authority (DHA) figures reveal that just 19% of the population get sufficient exercise – way below the global average. We are not talking about hitting the gym for hours on end here, in fact a 2013 study by Boston University found that short bursts of exercise – just 10 minutes per day – could have a positive impact on our health.

And it’s not just our waistlines that benefit. As well as being great for heart and lung health, regular exercise has also been shown to improve mood and potentially help in the treatment of mental health conditions such as depression. Essentially, exercise kick-starts several chemical chain reactions within our bodies which lessen the pain response and induce positive, sometimes even euphoric feelings, often referred to as ‘the runner’s high’. 

Scientific investigations into exercise and mood

So, how does it work? Much research still needs to be done but we do get an idea from various sources including a 2014 paper titled ‘A meta-analytic review of the effects of exercise on brain-derived neurotrophic factor’. This rather long term – abbreviated to BDNF – is the key. The paper stated that ‘Consistent evidence indicates that exercise improves cognition and mood, with preliminary evidence suggesting that BDNF may mediate these effects.’

Meanwhile, several studies have shown that endorphins interact with the brain in a similar way to morphine, binding to pain receptors and acting as both analgesics and sedatives – leaving us feeling calm, positive and upbeat post-exercise. Fortunately, unlike with morphine, activation of the pain receptors by endorphins does not lead to dependence.

And that’s not all that’s going on here either, there are plenty more chemicals being added to the mix. The most notable are serotonin and dopamine – low levels of which are often linked to poor mood and depression. 

Whatever is actually happening within the body, it seems that the actual outcomes are not really under debate. According to a Brazilian study published in the journal Neuropsychobiology, there is ‘overwhelming evidence… that exercise ensures successful brain functioning.’ The Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience found exercise to be an effective way of elevating serotonin levels in the brain, with that particular study concluding that ‘it is clear that aerobic exercise can improve mood.’ A separate study, this time from Poland, found regular exercise to improve mood and even ease symptoms of mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety. These findings were echoed by the University of Wisconsin-Madison which found that ‘exercise of any intensity significantly improved feelings of depression with no differential effect following light, moderate, or hard exercise.’ 

According to a Brazilian study published in the journal Neuropsychobiology, there is ‘overwhelming evidence… that exercise ensures successful brain functioning.’

So the studies are certainly arguing for the benefits of exercise in relation to mood. But how much exercise do you need to do? 

How much should we be exercising?

So now on to the eternal question. The answer depends on a number of factors such as your age and physical ability. As a rough rule of thumb, the UK’s National Health Service recommends around 150 minutes of moderate physical activity or 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity every week. They define moderate activity as things like fast walking or gentle cycling and vigorous activity as jogging or running, fast cycling or aerobics.

In terms of maintaining a reasonable level of fitness and general wellbeing, 150 minutes per week is a good target, though if possible at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise every single day. As well as benefitting our overall health, there is also plenty of evidence to suggest that mood can improve within minutes – and the effects can last hours.

In terms of maintaining a reasonable level of fitness and general wellbeing, 150 minutes per week is a good target, though if possible at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise every single day.

Researchers at the University of Vermont took a group of students and had them ride exercise bikes for 20 minutes at moderate intensity while another group did no exercise at all during the same time period. Participants were then asked to evaluate their mood via a questionnaire after one, two, four, eight, 12 and 24 hours. Those who had exercised reported improved moods after four, eight and 12 hours in comparison to those who were sedentary. At 24 hours, there was no difference between the two groups.

Another study, this time by Bowling Green State University, found that this improvement in mood can take place in as little as 15 minutes. Though these effects do wear off over the course of a day, so regular exercise is the key to improving mood in the long-term.

As for the types of exercise you need to be doing, this really comes down to what’s right for you. Anything that gets the heart rate up for at least 30 minutes per session will do the job – be it walking, jogging, cycling, swimming or samba. 

Get up and get moving

Even putting aside the mental and physical health benefits of exercise, there is another hugely important reason to get up and get moving: Sitting down for long periods is incredibly damaging to our health. So much so that many in the health industry have recently got behind the mantra ‘sitting is as bad as smoking’. While it may sound controversial in the extreme, there is some evidence behind this message.

Many in the health industry have recently got behind the mantra ‘sitting is as bad as smoking’.

Studies, including one by the University of Missouri which concludes that ‘…it is time to consider excessive sitting a serious health hazard’, have drawn the link between long periods of sitting and poor physical and mental health. And as the average office worker spends nearly six hours per day sitting down, it is certainly something we need to address.

A 2014 study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that excessive time sitting in front of screens was linked with a 25% increased risk of suffering from depression. And it is far from alone in its findings. Another, by Deakin University found physical inactivity can worsen mood and exacerbate anxiety.

So what greater motivation could you need? The mood-boosting side-effects of regular exercise coupled with the negative mental impact of physical inactivity should have you reaching for your running shoes in no time.

So, get up, get moving and run yourself happy.

Mark Janowski

About Mark Janowski

Dr. Mark Janowski (MD, USA) completed his medical training at Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, DC in 2001. As a fully licensed internal medicine specialist, he focuses on the diagnosis and management of hypertension, diabetes, hormone disorders, gastrointestinal issues, cardiac issues, weight control, depression and anxiety. He is also experienced in bio-identical hormone replacement for men and women, and in conducting comprehensive medical check-ups to detect and reverse early heart disease and diabetes, as well as to reduce stroke risk. You can read more about our programmes HERE
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