Exercise And Mood: How Moving The Body Boosts Your Mood

exercise makes mood better

A single 20-minute session of exercise can reverse feelings of fatigue, confusion, and gloom. Exercise can help one handle ADHD and PTSD without medicines. Running for 15-20 minutes a day can be a better alternative to antidepressants.

Do you want more happiness out of life in half an hour? Do you know how exercise can boost your mood in a big way? Have you been exercising your body as regularly as you should?

Let’s find out the science-backed mood benefits of physical exercise. And why you should never miss a daily workout again.

How Exercising Can Improve Mood Disorders

Research shows people who exercise at least once a week handle stressful tasks better than those who don’t exercise at all. Now, you will always face challenges and situations that try your patience for as long as you live. So, you just can not ignore the need for a routine workout.

Regular exercising is, without doubt, healthy and beneficial to your body and mind. Yet, many people perceive daily exercise as a Herculean task. They look at it more as a humdrum and stressful routine rather than a robust and healthful practice.

But if you think of it, exercise is the simple act of moving your body. It isn’t burdensome as much as you might imagine. Instead of seeing it as a grind, one should see exercising as one of the most fundamental function of your body — movement.

Moving your body not only helps you lose weight but also fosters feelings of joy and optimism in you. It improves your mood by tackling mental disorders such as anxiety and depression without medications.

By the way, experts recommend you need at least 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week.

Here are nine benefits of exercise on mood to get you started:

1. Increased Tolerance For “Fight or Flight” Instincts

Your mood depends on a system within your brain, known as the “fight or flight” stress response system. This system reacts to the physiological changes within your environment. It does that either by becoming frightened and wanting to run away or by choosing to stand and fight back.

A good example is when you hear a sudden loud noise, your heart rate fluctuates up fast.

So, when this system isn’t tolerant enough for various signs of fear, you become a prime candidate for anxiety.

You can boost this system’s tolerance levels by engaging in regular aerobic exercises. This way, you can train your heart to beat at a normal pace even when exposed to sudden physiological changes.

Another proven way of boosting this tolerance is by taking part in social games. And create a support ecosystem around the game. This will not only level up your physical activity but will also be great for connecting with people who matter.

So, get your soccer or paintball equipment and call in your close relatives or friends.

2. Increasing BDNF

Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor or BDNF is a healthy brain protein that aids the growth of new brain cells and strengthening of the existing ones. It also boosts weight loss, improves sleep, increases plasticity of the brain, and protects against neurodegenerative disorders.

When your brain has enough of this protein, you experience less severe depression. In a way, it eases the symptoms of depression.

And, of course, it keeps you mentally alert and sharp in long-term memory. When BDNF levels are high, it is up to 20% easier to learn new words.

Experts say some of the best ways to treat a shortage of the BDNF are strength-training and endurance exercises.

Another great solution for BDNF deficit is regular cycling. In a study, men who cycled everyday for 3 months nearly quadrupled their resting BDNF.

To make your cycling even more appealing, you could try something new as an electric bike or e-bike. It seems to be a trend among outdoor sports enthusiasts.

3. Natural Medication For ADHD

Moving your body regularly helps you cope better with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder or ADHD.

Some experts believe moderate-intensity workouts and attention-grabbing activities are the best bets to tackle ADHD. A few games that grab your attention and improve your focus include paintball, scavenger hunts, playing catch, and jigsaw puzzles.

Jigsaw puzzle for ADHD
Jigsaw Puzzle (Image Source: Wikipedia / Tobias Klenze / CC BY-SA)

A November 2013 study in the Journal of Attention Disorders on children with ADHD found three games to be useful in improving inhibitory control and following directions:

  1. Simon Says: Children do as the leader says, like touching their toes, but only if the leader begins the sentence with “Simon Says.”
  2. Red Light, Green Light: Children walk or run ahead whenever the leader says (or holds up a sign) “Red Light!“ And freeze to the spot when they hear the ”Red Light!”
  3. Freeze Dancing: Children dance to a cheerful song before the leader stops the music. Then they have to stay frozen in their places till the music starts again.

4. Meditation+Exercise Helps Cope Better With Trauma

Meditative Movement (MM) is a known therapy for most of the symptoms of depression. This innovative form of mind-body exercise helps one to strengthen the body, calm the mind and lift the spirits.

Meditative Movement is a recently coined term for gentle exercises that incorporate some form of movement or body positioning, breathing, and relaxation. In simple words, they are exercises that combine body movements with meditative attention.

According to Payne and Crane-Godreau (2013), the meditative attention is directed to the body sensations, including proprioceptive (position and movement), interoceptive (internal state), and kinesthetic (touch) sensations.

Now, any slow form of exercise can be combined with mindfulness meditation to extract the benefits of MM.

When you meditate with mindfulness, you live in the moment. You ignore the past and future, and pay close attention to your feelings and sensations in the present. It helps you forget the many stressful occurrences that threaten to dim your mood. And allows you to appreciate yourself more for who you are.

Mindfulness meditation can keep you focused on your breath and heartbeat rhythms, even as you move your body around.

Some meditative movements you could practice are Yoga, Tai Chi, and Qigong. They can ease the symptoms of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). This is more evident especially after one has gone through a life-threatening experience.

However, it is important to note that PTSD is best diagnosed by mental health experts. You might also seek the help of a qualified counselor or coach to help you get away from the traumatic symptoms. The idea here is to move your body and seek professional help in finding your inner peace.

Qigong is a profound and proven Meditative Movement exercise. It comprises mindful movements, regulation of breathing, and control of attention. A 2019 Finnish study found 4 sessions of weekly 90-minute Qigong brought about an experience of relaxation, happiness, balance, and restful clarity. It produced “flow already 20 min into the session, and that flow state intensified at 40 and 60 min.”

5. Exercise Is A Powerful Depression Reliever

Running for 15-20 minutes a day can be a better and all-natural alternative to antidepressant medication.

Exercise triggers a biological chain of events that results in many health benefits, such as protection against heart disease and diabetes, improvement of sleep, and reduction of blood pressure.

From a scientific point of view, moving the body boosts feelings of calm and wellbeing. It does that by promoting the production and release of endorphins.

Endorphins are powerful brain chemicals often called natural painkillers and mood-elevators of the body. When released into the brain, they lift the mood and make us feel energized.

Science aside, exercise can be an excellent distraction from negative thought patterns. Take this example. When you go hiking into the woods, it cuts the cycle of negative thoughts that feed your depression. And affords you some quiet time to nourish your brain with some positive messages.

According to a recent study by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, moderate exercise can be an effective remedy for mild and moderate depression.

The study also found walking for at least an hour per day can lower your risk of getting major depression by up to 26%.

As a supportive therapy, exercise seems to be most helpful for treatment-resistant depression, unipolar depression, and PTSD. Also, maintaining a daily exercise schedule can reduce the risk of a relapse in people recovering from depression.

6. Lowering of Stress Hormones

Stress is the sum of physiological changes in the body in response to physical or external strains.

Stress can affect our homeostasis (stable, natural state of the body) in a drastic and negative way. Two chemicals have close links to stress: cortisol and adrenaline. Both originate from two small glands resting on top of our kidneys: adrenal glands.

Cortisol is a glucocorticoid hormone secreted from the cortex of adrenal glands into serum or saliva. It’s also known as the “stress hormone.” Cortisol plays a major role in metabolism, immune function, and regulation of stress responses. Elevated cortisol secretion plays a central part in a well-orchestrated immune response to stress.

Adrenaline (epinephrine) is a natural catecholamine secreted from the medulla of the adrenal glands. During normal physiological conditions, there is no secretion of adrenaline. But under stress, we release a high level of adrenaline to prepare the body for a “fight or flight” response.

Moderate workouts as aerobic exercises can lower the levels of your body’s stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol. This boosts feelings of relaxation and optimism.

A study published in The Journal of Physical Therapy Science showed four weeks of moderate-intensity exercise substantially decreased the salivary stress hormones in young healthy volunteers.

7. The Confidence-Boosting Factor

Research shows there is a strong link between positive self-esteem and physical health. Evidence suggests exercise contributes to an increase in self-esteem. All the same, people with higher levels of self-esteem report better physical health.

Self-esteem is our evaluation of our self-concept and feelings associated with that evaluation. Some signs of low self-esteem are negative self-talk, comparison with others, and focusing on the negatives and mistakes while ignoring the positives and successes.

The emotional benefits of exercise can be credited to the positive physical changes the body experiences because of daily exercise. Physical fitness gives you a sense of mastery and control, renews your vigor and energy, and helps you achieve key lifestyle goals.

Exercise helps your waistline shrink, improves your physical and mental health, boosts your strength and stamina, and improves your all-around physical appearance. Your self-image improves as a result, and that is what you need for enhanced feelings of pride and self-confidence.

A study published in The Scientific World Journal in 2014 found aerobics exercise significantly improved the self-esteem in Iranian female adolescents who had no family. Further, this effect persisted even one month after the experiment.

And a 2000 study by Alfermann published in the International Journal of Sport Psychology found regular physical activity for at least six months was a highly successful method to build self-confidence.

8. Progressive Muscle Relaxation and Mood Boost

When you get stressed and your mood dips, your muscles become tight and tense. The reverse is also true. When you are relaxed, your muscles are soft and pliable.

By learning the art of progressively relaxing your muscles, you make it easy for your body to dissipate stress and kindle your spirits. That is where progressive muscular relaxation (PMR) comes in handy.

This technique is almost as easy to do as deep breathing exercises. And though it takes more time to learn and more effort to execute, it is an excellent way to unwind and relax your mood.

How does progressive muscular relaxation (PMR) work?

This technique is best performed in a secluded, quiet, peaceful, and pleasant place. You need a comfortable mattress or mat for optimal relaxation. You may need an audiobook to guide you the directions into your ear, at least until you master all the steps.

Once you master PMR, you are able to relax all major muscle groups in your body. It releases the collected tension in the muscles. And lets you experience a sensation of relaxation sweeping through your entire body.

Some muscles that boost your moods faster when relaxed are: face muscles, chest and tummy muscles, buttocks and thighs, arms, and legs.

The entire progressive muscular relaxation routine takes about 15 minutes. And it is advisable to do it 2-3 times a day, especially if your daily schedule is stress-ridden. The results start showing in about two weeks.

9. Prevents Memory Loss

Movement increases oxygen and blood circulation in the brain. This improves your mood and cognitive functioning, especially in senior citizens. Exercise can reverse the cognitive decline such as memory loss.

Now, short-term memory problems, absent-mindedness, and chronic forgetfulness are the key symptoms and contributors of dementia. Exercise can reverse them early enough. So, a daily routine of moderate exercise is tantamount to treating dementia beforehand.

What is the relationship between dementia and mood?

Dementia is a syndrome in which there is impairment of memory, thinking, behavior, and the ability to perform daily activities.

Dementia affects judgment, and poor judgment can be detrimental to a person’s social life. It causes depression and anxiety.

Some people experience extreme and sudden emotions of anger, agitation, or aggression. Sometimes, people with dementia show apathy (lack of concern) even in the most serious situations.

It gets almost impossible for a person with dementia to lead a happy social life. Preventing dementia through exercise, thus, is an excellent proactive guard against the negative moods.

Final Words

As you move your body during the day, remember to give it optimal rest at night for the best results.

Not sleeping enough at night leaves you feeling fatigued and moody through the day. If you add that to the many taxing experiences at work, your mood drops into a deep pit.

One cause of poor sleep and insomnia could be low BDNF in your brain (see point #2 above). You could try some sleep hacks to ensure you get enough deep sleep and wake up fresh.

But beware, move your body when you should and sleep when you should. Those two must never overlap.

Now get ready to move your body more today and with still higher intensity next week on. All the best to you!

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Authors’ Bio: Cilian Lear is a neurologist and he loves to help other people. One of his favorite hobbies is biking, and he usually finds the best bikes at Bikeberry. He is also a writer and loves to write about things that inspire him.
Co-written, edited and reviewed by Sandip Roy – medical doctor, psychology writer, happiness researcher. Founder of Happiness India Project, and chief editor of its blog. He writes popular-science articles on positive psychology and related medical topics.


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