Exercise and Mood
There is now more evidence than ever supporting the mental health benefits of exercise. A significant link exists between exercise and mood, with the effects of physical activity extending to both the short and long-term. For example, in the short-term going for a run after a stressful day can improve one's mood immediately. In the long-term, there is epidemiological research that suggests people who are active are less depressed than those who are inactive. Further, these data illustrate people who stop being active tend to be more depressed that those who maintain or begin a program of physical activity. When it comes to mood enhancement, exercise is not only a preventative measure, but recent experimental studies (e.g., Blumenthal, 2007) have shown exercise is equally as effective as anti-depressants in treating major depressive disorder and possibly more effective in preventing relapse (Blumenthal, 2010).
There is also growing evidence to suggest exercise can be helpful in treating anxiety. Anxiety is an experience triggered by activation of the nervous system, which results in physical sensations such as sweating, increased or racing heart rate, and dizziness. Individuals who have a heightened sensitivity to these sensations often respond with fear. Researchers have found exercise can mimic exposure treatment by exposing individuals to anxiety sensations and then associating them with safety (Smits & Otto, 2008). Additionally, activity level has been shown to correlate negatively with likelihood of panic attacks in people who have high anxiety sensitivity.
Researchers are still uncertain about how much and what types of exercise are most beneficial in treating mental health issues. Preliminary research suggests higher dose exercise protocols appear to have the greatest benefit, but family mental health history and gender appear to be moderating variables. Further, aerobic activities have been the focus of most studies in this area. The potential benefits of weight training and mind-body endeavors such as yoga have yet to be fully explored. The mechanism by which exercise exerts its effect on mental health is also still unclear. There are some who suspect exercise works to alleviate depression by increasing serotonin levels (a similar mechanism to antidepressants) and brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF (a protein related to nerve growth). Another hypothesis is exercise helps to normalize sleep patterns, thereby providing a protective service for the brain. Alternatively, exercise may improve mood as an individual may subjectively feel they have returned to meaningful activity. Most likely, there are multiple mechanisms by which exercise positively affects mental health.
The most perplexing question, however, is likely why is starting to exercise so difficult, given its various benefits? One potential reason is the tendency to start an exercise session too intensely, which tends to delay its related mood boost. Additionally, many people associate exercise with losing weight or other health-related goals. Often, these goals are long-term endeavors and do not provide the immediate reinforcement needed to maintain the activity. Experts recommend starting an exercise program and individual exercise sessions slowly. In addition, it is recommended one focus on their mental state after exercise (as opposed to long-term goals such as weight loss), which can provide immediate gratification. Further, choosing to not exercise when feeling down prevents one from noticing just how powerful an effect it can have on mood. Experts in this area say skipping a workout at these times is analogous to not taking an aspirin when you have a headache.
Even with so many unanswered questions, it is clear exercise has many benefits, including enhancing one's mental health. Psychologists are experts on behavioral change and can work with clients to begin and maintain an exercise program. Dr. LaFrazza has a unique expertise in working with individuals of all ages and activity levels on incorporating exercise into their wellness regiment, even within the busiest of schedules. Further, Lepage Associates offers outdoor walking trails, which can serve as a vehicle through which physical activity can easily be incorporated into talk therapy.
Blumenthal. J., Exercise and pharmacotherapy in the treatment of major depressive disorder (2007). Psychosomatic Medicine 69:587-596 (2007)
Blumenthal, J., Exercise and pharmacotherapy in patients with major depression: One-year follow-up of the SMILE study (2010). Psychosomatic Medicinevol. 73 no. 2 127-133
Smits, A.J., Berry, A.C., Rosenfield, D., Behar, E., Otto, M.W., (2008). Reducing anxiety sensitivity with exercise. Depression and Anxiety, Volume 25 (8), pages 689-699
Weir, K. (2011). The exercise effect. APA Monitor on Psychology, vol 42(11), 49-52.