If you've ever been stressed out, you may have attempted to relieve your anxiety in a number of ways to take your mind off your worries, or in some instinctual way, to alter your brain chemistry a bit. Sometimes it works, but many of our go-to strategies also have negative consequences, especially when carried out repeatedly. In the long run, some of the ways we try to increase happiness can actually decrease it. There is another strategy for reducing stress and improving mood that not only seems to make people happier, but also yields positive long-term effects more conducive to long-term happiness. This strategy is exercising.
We know that regular fitness is good for the heart and that it can help the body to build muscles and maintain a healthy weight. But it also spurs the release of feel-good chemicals that promote happiness. And now a new study in the Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology adds more evidence to the "happiness" benefit. Researchers from the Penn State University found in their study that the more physically active people reported greater general feelings of excitement and enthusiasm, compared with the less physically active people. "We found that people who are more physically active have more pleasant-activated feelings than people who are less active, and we also found that people have more pleasant-activated feelings on days when they are more physically active than usual," study researcher Amanda Hyde, a kinesiology graduate student at Penn State, said in a statement.
When you exercise and stay active on a regular basis, you may have noticed that you feel less stressed out, less anxious, and generally happier. And that’s not just a coincidence, because studies suggest that there is a direct link between exercise and happiness for a number of reasons:
Exercise releases happy chemicals into your brain
You're probably familiar with the term "runner's high," which refers to the euphoric feeling one sometimes gets when exercising. The body produces endorphins, which are chemicals that reduce the perception of pain, improve immunity and help you relax. Endorphins are natural mood boosters that enhance feelings of optimism and satisfaction. Exercise promotes the generation and release of endorphins, while reducing the activity of hormones such as adrenalin and cortisol (these promote feelings of anxiety and tension). Regular exercise can help you attain a happier state of mind and a better quality of life.
Dopamine (a chemical in the brain that is called a neurotransmitter) is necessary for feelings of pleasure and happiness. Scientists believe that as we age, we’re constantly losing dopamine stores and an excellent way to increase dopamine levels is through regular exercise (aerobic exercise is probably one of the best releasers of dopamine).When you exercise and your heart begins to beat faster, levels of the feel-good neurochemicals serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine rise in the body. So does brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a substance that can protect the brain from emotional disorders and repair damage caused by stress and depression. At the same time, opiate-like endorphins and endocannabinoids flood the system, leading to a sense of well-being. Exercise is also responsible for the creation of new brain cells in the part of the brain responsible for learning and memory.
Exercise makes you less stressed
Stress can cause a vicious cycle of negative thinking, worrisome thoughts and physical symptoms such as muscular discomfort, indigestion and pain. Exercise provides a distraction from your worries and you will lose weight and get fitter and healthier. You can greatly reduce your risk of chronic illnesses, which are major contributors to stress and anxiety. You will also feel a sense of accomplishment as you exercise harder and for longer intervals of time. Not only will exercising ease stress in the short term by helping you sweat out the day's worries, but regular exercise will help you become less stressed in the long term. That’s because when you exercise, you’re actually subjecting yourself to a low-level form of stress by raising your heart rate and triggering a burst of hormonal changes. When you subject yourself to the stress of exercise enough, your body will eventually get better at handling stress. But if you stay sedentary, your body can become more sensitive to stress.
Exercise engages neurons in the brain, just like it engages muscles in the body. That raises the brain's stress threshold. People who exercise regularly don't respond as dramatically to stress as non-exercisers do. Their heart rate doesn't shoot up as high, and their mood doesn't sink as low. “Expose yourself to this ‘stress’ enough and your body builds up immunity to it. Eventually, it will get better at handling the rest of life’s stressors,” says clinical psychologist Jasper Smits, Ph.D., co-author of Exercise for Mood and Anxiety.
Exercise energizes you
We all have days when we just feel too tired to exercise, when working out is the last thing in the world you want to do. But no matter how exhausted you are from a long day at work, do your best to muster up all the willpower you have and work out, because more likely than not, you'll feel more energized after your workout than you did before it.
Research has shown that exercise can be better at upping energy than stimulants. “A lot of times when people are fatigued, the last thing they want to do is exercise,” says researcher Patrick O’Connor, co-director of the University of Georgia exercise psychology laboratory, in Athens, Ga. “But if you’re physically inactive and fatigued, being just a bit more active will help.” Because no matter how counterintuitive it may seem, exercise actually increases energy levels and fights fatigue. And when you have more energy to do all the things you want to do you’ll ultimately feel more satisfied with life.
Exercise boosts your confidence
When you don't feel good about your body or how you look, it can cause a feeling of low self-esteem and that can have a negative effect on all areas of your life. However, when you start to exercise and see your body transform these negative feelings can quickly change. Exercise will not only make you like how you look, it will also make you feel stronger, more independent, and more confident. When you start working out and achieving goals you never thought possible, you’ll feel an incredible sense of accomplishment.
Exercise eases anxiety
If you suffer from anxiety, exercise may be a simple cure. Because recent studies on the effects of exercise show that in people suffering from anxiety, the immediate mood boost from exercise is followed by longer-term relief. In fact, exercise seems to work better than relaxation, meditation, stress education and music therapy at easing anxiety.
Exercise can be a useful substitute for antidepressant drugs, according to a 1999 study, originally published in the "Archives of Internal Medicine." In the study, men and women who used aerobic exercise to combat depression had the same success rates as participants who used antidepressants or a combination of exercise and antidepressants. After six months, most of the original participants contributed to a follow-up study, which found that those who stuck to a regular exercise regimen had a lower risk of relapse into depression. An estimated 1 in 10 adults suffer from some form of depression, and even more probably go unreported. But rather than getting prescription meds to treat the blues, try exercising instead.
Exercise fights insomnia
If you have trouble sleeping, a lack of exercise may be your problem, so skip the sleeping pill and try exercising instead. Staying active and exercising on a regular basis has been shown to improve sleeping problems of insomniacs and people with sleeping disorders. Research shows that people who begin exercising regularly report that their sleep quality improves significantly. And not only can regular exercise significantly improve your sleep quality, it can also give you that pep that makes you want to get out of bed in the morning and do things.
In a 2010 study, researchers at North-western University put people with insomnia on a 16-week exercise program, starting with walking, riding a bike or jogging for 10 to 15 minutes at a time. By week six, they were doing 30 to 40 minutes, four times a week. Afterward, subjects reported a significant bump in their quality of sleep—they fell asleep faster, slept more hours, experienced better moods and felt more alert during the day.
Exercise boosts the immune system
Both exercise and happiness lead to increased production of antibodies, which are a special type of protein produced by the immune system. When everything is working normally, antibodies arrive on the scene shortly after antigens (bacteria, viruses or other unwanted invaders) are detected in the body. Antibodies hunt them down and bind themselves to the antigens. Once locked on, T-cells (the immune system's "killer cells”) arrive and destroy the antigens. Antibodies also help produce other cells that aid and assist in the immune system. People who are happy are more resistant to diseases ranging from the common cold to heart disease, while stress and anxiety tend to make people more susceptible to sickness, including diabetes and stroke. Happiness has been shown to increase antibodies by as much as 50 percent. Exercise has been shown to increase antibody production by as much as 300 percent. Exercise also directly increases the number of T-cells in your body. By increasing numbers of "hunters" (antibodies) and "killers" (T-cells), it's no wonder a workout keeps you healthier. And since people who exercise tend to report higher levels of happiness, the exercise-induced happiness improves the immune system independent of the physiological effects of the exercise.
You do not have to indulge in demanding physical activity to reap the psychological benefits of exercise. The Harvard Medical School says that walking, Pilates, stretching, mental exercises, breathing techniques and muscle relaxation techniques can all be effective in combating stress. To alleviate stress, practice slow, relaxed breathing anywhere and at any time. Controlled muscle relaxation is another effective combatant against tension and anxiety. Meditation is a rewarding exercise that relaxes your mind, makes you more positive and reduces physical signs of stress such as an elevated heartbeat and hypertension. You can also perform chores such as gardening and housecleaning, which can provide substantial exercise and lift your spirits.
Exercise is a powerful weapon against the blues. In the short term, it can elevate mood when you're feeling down. Long term, it can knock out milder forms of clinical depression. And as little as 60 minutes a week of any kind of physical activity can do it: Researchers at The University of Queensland School of Human Movement Studies found that subjects who did low-level activities for at least an hour a week cut their risk for depression by 30 to 40 percent.
Until next time,
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Dr. Marike de Klerk