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Three Ways Exercise Improves Mood

Happy woman exercising

Authored by Andrew Evans, ACE Health Coach at Hilton Head Health

Have you noticed that in the past decade society has pushed the fitness industry into the forefront of our minds? We are living in an era of a fitness revolution, with boutique fitness studios popping up everywhere across the country, streaming fitness services making it more convenient to exercise in the comfort of your own home, and people doing more outdoor-themed races and 5k races than ever before. We are fascinated by the gadgets we use to track our fitness including Fitbit, Apple Watch, and Garmin (to name a few), not to mention most of us carry a smartphone which allows us to keep fitness tracking apps right at our fingertips. And athleisure has become the new norm for clothing, making it totally acceptable, and fashionable, to walk out of the house in your favorite pair of “yoga” pants or joggers. 

According to forbes.com in 2018, “the fitness industry in the U.S. has been growing by at least 3 – 4% annually for the last ten years and shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon. If anything, it’s accelerating. Currently, about 20% of American adults have a fitness club membership, a number that in my opinion could easily double in the next 10 – 15 years.”   

So, beyond the fact that there is money to be made in the fitness realm, what else draws us to be fitness fanatics? It may be a well-known fact that we all want to live longer, healthier, and more prosperous lives, and maintaining our fitness is the way to do it. But have you ever stopped to consider the other benefits that exercise has to offer? Exercise improves the way you feel, mentally, and emotionally. Research shows that regular exercise can alleviate anxiety, increase energy, boost confidence, and improve your relationships with others. Here are 3 ways exercise can improve your mood. 

Exercise relieves stress

Have you ever wondered why some people say that they feel better after a workout, or that they receive a “natural high” during a run? There’s science to prove that it’s true. When we participate in exercise our body releases neurochemicals called endorphins. These endorphins are released in the brain as a protective mechanism to experiences of stress and pain. They are commonly referred to as natural pain relievers and pleasure boosters. They act similarly to drugs like morphine and codeine, but without the negative addictive effects. 

Most research indicates that moderate-to-vigorous exercise produces the highest levels of endorphin release, therefore having more significant pain and/or stress-relieving effect. This makes sense because the higher the physical stress on the body the more endorphins are released. 

So how do you know if the exercise you’re doing will release endorphins? If you find the exercise challenging but do-able then you’re on the right track. High-intensity-interval-training (or HIIT) can be a great method of challenging your system, resulting in the production of the endorphin response. Other ways to increase endorphins are exercising outdoors or in a group setting. 

Exercise linked to treating and preventing depression 

Unfortunately, one of the most common mental disorders in the U.S. is depression, affecting 16.2 million Americans in a given year.(Statistics indicate that those who exercise less are more likely to experience depression than those that participate in regular exercise. Although there is no causation.) There are a plethora of symptoms of depression that affect how we feel, the way we think, and how we act. Medication and psychotherapy are common treatments for symptoms, but there is evidence to suggest that exercise may be just as effective. In addition, there are no drug side effects and it can also be less expensive. Both cardiovascular and resistance training methods were found to be effective and some research indicates that the positive effects may be long-lasting.  

To achieve long term benefits that can help improve symptoms of depression, studies have found that exercise sustained over time produces the best results. Sustained exercise causes an increase in the release of neurotrophic proteins that improve nerve cell growth and connections, overall improving the function of the hippocampus. This is significant because the hippocampus is the area of the brain that regulates mood. Neuroscientists have identified that this part of the brain tends to be smaller (and therefore less effective) in individuals who suffer from depression. 

Happy man jogging

As stated earlier, moderate to vigorous bouts of exercise can improve your mood through the release of endorphins, but for most of us non-athletes, the real value is in low-intensity exercise sustained over time. These types of exercises can include walking, yoga, tai chi, stretching, or weight training with lighter weights. If you’re struggling to find sustainability with an exercise routine, look to start with something small. Even doing light exercise for 5 minutes is a great way to start. Again the most important component is building consistency over time. 

Due to the complexities of causes and symptoms of depression for each individual, exercise alone may not work for everyone and is recommended in combination with other treatments by healthcare professionals. Making changes to other lifestyle behavior factors including proper nutrition, social support, adequate sleep, and stress management are also essential factors for preventing depression symptoms long term. 

Exercise can boost self-esteem 

Self-esteem is defined by a perception of one’s own abilities and qualities, and belief in self-worth or value. It is determined by our own achievements and accomplishments as well as how we think others are judging us and is important because it plays a significant role in our motivation and success in life. Most of us have experienced low self-esteem at one point or another in our lives. Low self-esteem can include negative self-talk, comparing yourself to others, focusing on the negatives or mistakes in your life, and ignoring the positives and accomplishments. We can improve our self-esteem through building self-confidence and engaging in self-love, and participating in exercise is a great way of increasing both of these things. 

In addition to exercise improving objective health measures like heart rate, blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol, body composition, and weight, it can also subjectively improve physical appearance. On the outside, this may be obvious. But, the perception of how we feel is shown to be just as important as the objective measures themselves. That is to say that our self-esteem can increase due to the positive feelings we receive from exercise without necessarily changing objective results. After exercise many times we feel stronger and more coordinated, in turn feeling more powerful and in control of our body. We may learn new skills or improve movements where we may have struggled before, providing a boost to confidence and seeing ourselves in a more positive light. 

Another way to increase self-esteem is through self-love. What better way to show yourself love than by taking care of the body that you live in? Instead of thinking of exercise as just something your doctor expects or what society tells you to do, think of exercise as a way of giving back to yourself. It’s just like taking your daily dose of vitamins or medicine. By taking just a few minutes of mindful, joyful movement each day, you can significantly increase your levels of self-esteem. 

Exercise is the natural mood-enhancing medicine. The best part is you don’t have to be an elite CrossFit athlete to attain the mood-boosting benefits it can offer!  Even if you aren’t a regular exerciser, remember that small amounts of physical activity can add up to give you that stress-relieving, confidence-boosting feeling that makes us happier and healthier individuals. So, the next time you find yourself feeling a little down in the dumps, I encourage you to find movement!  

Andrew Evans
ACE Health Coach

Click here for more information about the wellness and weight loss programs at Hilton Head Health, recently named the #1 Wellness Resort the Country by USA Today