Exercise and emotion

Exercise and emotion

The myriad benefits of exercise to our physical health are well-documented. More and more research is emerging to support the idea that it's not just the body that benefits from exercise, though – our emotional well-being can be boosted in all sorts of ways by an active lifestyle.

As if the promise of benefits to our physical health weren't enough to get us all running off to the gym at every opportunity in search of a trimmer silhouette, longer life and protection from all sorts of diseases, it turns out that physical exercise can have a hugely beneficial influence on our emotional functioning as well. So if you need any more reasons to get off that sofa and get moving, read on.

Consider this: Emotions are basically a vastly complex and subtle effect of our brain interacting with the rest of our body in order to make sense of, and respond to, the external world. Any processes that affect the body will also affect the brain. Exercise is no exception: Through an incredibly complicated cascade of neurotransmitters and hormones, physical exercise influences the processes in the brain that are concerned with our emotions.

Interesting though the theory of these processes is, what are the practical implications? What benefits to our emotional functioning can we hope for from our exercise regime? Research tends to fall into two categories here: General quality of life issues, and the alleviation of emotional difficulties.

Exercise and (emotional) quality of life

Exercise provides an immediate short-term boost to your mood, whether you exercise habitually or not. Many studies have confirmed that even a relatively short bout of aerobic exercise (usually about half an hour, but even ten minutes can have a beneficial effect) results in people reporting a more positive mood, and less stress and tension. This effect seems to occur because exercise releases chemical substances in the brain that are associated with pleasure (e.g. endorphins, adrenaline, serotonin and dopamine) and that leave you feeling calm, optimistic and energised . In other words, you get an immediate high. A high that is natural, free, and does not come with any dangerous side effects!

The benefits of exercise for emotional functioning persist once the initial high has worn off. Regular moderate exercise has been associated with improved sleep and general stress management, which in turn contribute to greater emotional well-being. Furthermore, an active lifestyle is associated with greater self confidence, increased ability to cope with adverse life events (in other words, emotional resilience) and a sense of optimism.

A correlation between an active lifestyle and good mood isn't that interesting in itself. Such a correlation might be influenced by all sorts of other variables, such as general physical health, age, and even socioeconomic factors, so it wouldn't be clear that it was the exercise that was causing the improved emotional functioning. Interestingly, the relationship between exercise and improved emotional functioning has been shown to go beyond a correlation. There's a definite causal effect. Studies generally take the form of 'prescribing' an exercise programme to a group of people and comparing its effects to no exercise or a placebo intervention. Again and again – and studies include 'normal' university students, the elderly, and people undergoing cancer treatment to name but a few – the results point to a positive relationship between physical activity and mood.

Exercise and the alleviation of emotional difficulties

Exercise has received some serious attention in the field of mental health, particularly in the treatment of anxiety and depression. As for general quality of life issues, the effects go beyond correlation. It's not just that you're less likely, statistically, to suffer from anxiety, depression and other mood disorders if you exercise regularly (again, that's a relationship that could be influenced by all sorts of other factors). Exercise has been shown to have a causal effect on symptoms of anxiety and depression, to the extent that exercise programmes are being prescribed as formal treatment for mood disorders by some doctors.

It seems that the biochemical changes associated with exercise – those neurotransmitters and hormones mentioned earlier – can have a hugely beneficial effect on symptoms of depression and anxiety. This shouldn't come as a huge surprise, since biochemical imbalances have long been known to be associated with mood disorders. For example, depression is often associated with lowered serotonin levels. Exercise causes serotonin to be released in the brain. It's a simple equation, and it seems to work, in some cases as well as, or even better than, medication.

Practical implications

One theme that comes up again and again in research on the relationship between exercise and emotional functioning is that all exercise is not created equal. In order to have maximum positive effects both on general quality of life and on symptoms of depression or anxiety, exercise needs to be aerobic (resistance training does not have the same effect), regular (half an hour to hour-long sessions three times a week are recommended), and of moderate intensity. Of course these guidelines are familiar to anyone who has sought advice on physical fitness, as they reflect the official line on maximising the physical health benefits of exercise.

So there you are: Two birds, one stone: Follow the advice for a physically healthier lifestyle, and you benefit emotionally too. Now, what's stopping you? Get out there, move – and feel great!

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