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How Physical Fitness Can Improve Mood and Physical Performance

If you’re feeling down, exercise is the best medicine, experts say. The trick, of course, is dredging up the energy to kick an exercise session into gear, something that is difficult for people who are in a funk that leaves them feeling lackluster and lazy. Once you do find the willpower to move, however, the health benefits that exercise provides are sure to kick in.

“The link between exercise and mood is pretty strong,” says Michael Otto, Ph.D., Psychology Professor at Boston University, in a 2011 article appearing on the American Psychological website. “Usually within five minutes after moderate exercise, you get a mood-enhancement effect.” 1

That means if you’re one of those people who has a hard time finding your exercise groove, you only need to force it for five minutes before endorphins begin to rise, quickly kicking a blue mood to the curb.

Give it 15 minutes a day, according to the experts at Harvard Medical School, and you can slow down the aging process, which should help improve mood significantly as well. 2

Blue Mood, Erased

Depression impacts millions of people across the world, and in many cases, it can be debilitating. According to 2014 Australian research that appeared in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, exercise showed similar results to anti-depressants when it came to alleviating symptoms of depression.

Researchers found that aerobic exercise of moderate intensity—walking, working out on a treadmill or stationary bike, cycling, or swimming—worked similarly to medication to lift a blue mood. More importantly, exercise in the long term helps boost self-esteem because it is usually tied to weight loss or a stronger body, both of which can help significantly improve self-image.

Exercise relieves depression symptoms because it eases anxiety—a harbinger of depression—and leads to more productive sleep, also a benefit that protects against the dreaded stress.

As part of a nine-week study, researchers compared the moods of those who participated in moderate-intensity aerobic exercise three times a week to those who did not. Those who exercised felt better and were happier overall.

According to Dr. James Blumenthal, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at Duke University, studies have shown that people who are active have less depression than people who are not active. And if something happens to cause levels of physical activity to suddenly drop, depression levels rise in those formerly active people.

In a 2007 study that appeared in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine, Blumenthal found that exercise was as effective as antidepressants in treating symptoms of depression, and if exercise continued, so did improved mood. “Exercise seems not only important for treating depression, but also in preventing relapse,” he said in a 2010 follow-up that appeared in the same journal.

woman smiling while exercising Exercise May Also Ease Anxiety

There have been some questions about exercise and its ability to ease stress and anxiety since the fight-or-flight hormone adrenaline is released when people exercise, so the body mimics how people feel when they're stressed. Ultimately, however, exercise is similar to exposure therapy for those with anxiety, and the more they experience anxiety-related symptoms due to exercise, the better they were able to deal with situational anxiety.

“People learn to associate the symptoms with safety instead of danger,” said Jasper Smits, Ph.D., who co-authored the book Exercise for Mood and Anxiety: Proven Strategies for Overcoming Depression and Enhancing Well-Being.

What Happens When You Exercise?

When people move their bodies, endorphins are released to provide the energy to keep going. These hormones, according to Dr. Robert Gotlin, a sports medicine specialist at New York City’s Mt. Sinai Hospital, are elevated when people exercise, which can boost good feelings. 3 Exercise also elevates levels of mood-enhancing serotonin, making working out one of the best ways to influence at least two of the neurotransmitters that control mood.

So how exactly do endorphins—another of the neurotransmitters that play a role in mood, similar to dopamine and serotonin—work? Endorphins are produced by the central nervous system, which includes not only by the brain but also the spinal cord, and they are released in response to activity by certain neurotransmitters. When released, endorphins not only provide a burst of energy, but they also ease the perception of pain, interacting with the same neuron receptors that are triggered by pain medications such as morphine.

Experts say that exercise is effective for alleviating symptoms of depression because it not only boosts endorphins, which is one way to improve mood, but it also offers the option of exercising outdoors, increasing exposure to natural light to relieve symptoms of seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

Exercise Boosts Endurance and Physical Performance

Because regular exercise keeps you strong, it’s one of the best activities for staying healthy. Being fit lowers the risk of many chronic illnesses, especially heart disease and type 2 diabetes. 4

Both aerobic exercise and strength training are important parts of any fitness regimen. Aerobic exercises are best for the heart and lungs, and they include walking, jogging, swimming, cycling, and aerobic exercises like the treadmill or elliptical machine.

people riding a cycle in a class Getting Started

Sometimes, it’s really difficult to get started on an exercise program, even though you know the benefits it offers not only for your body but also for your mind.

According to Otto, most people skip workouts because when they feel tired or depressed, it's easier to watch Netflix with a box of cookies than find the energy to take a walk. Only about half of adults in the U.S. exercise three times a week, meaning that most other people are choosing Netflix marathons over exercise classes. 5

According to the American College of Sports Medicine, 30 minutes of moderate physical activity—a walk around the block with your dog, for example—at least five days a week is enough to achieve basic fitness levels, protect against mood disorders, and strengthen the heart. A more vigorous routine, one that includes flexibility and resistance training, however, is necessary for strength and endurance.

The best way to start a workout program is to find some activity that you like. If you loved riding your bike as a kid, try signing up for a spin class or rent a bike to get around town the next time you're shopping, traveling, or attending a festival. Many mid-sized cities offer bike sharing programs that can make it easy to see if cycling is right for you.

Your local YMCA also offers day passes that will give you a chance to swim or try out exercise equipment or classes to see if there is something that works for you.

The trick, experts say, is not to overdo it the first time out, which is the reason most people give up on an exercise program. Too much ambition at the start can cause physical pain that erases not only the mood boost but also the drive to try again another day. However, with steady steps, you're well on your way to finding an exercise routine that works for you and reaping the health benefits it's sure to provide.

Photo credits: FlamingoImages/, Rido/, GaudiLab/

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