I’d like to see a different kind of commercial: “Would you like to sleep better, feel calmer, enhance your mood, boost your energy? Dozens of recent studies have shown that aerobic exercise consistently produces these benefits. And exercise has been found to produce the following positive side effects: Improved concentration and memory, weight loss, lower cholesterol, reduced blood pressure, increased immune function, enhanced sexual performance, and improved self-esteem. Because it enhances feelings of pleasure and well-being, exercise may be habit-forming. Ask your doctor if exercise is right for you.”
Although we haven’t seen that commercial yet, you’ve probably heard that information. It’s out there. And yet, 80 percent of Americans don’t get the 30 minutes of aerobic exercise most days of the week as recommended by the National Institutes of Health, the American College of Sports Medicine, and the American Heart Association. You know the reasons: We’re too busy, too tired, too sore, the weather is bad, it’s too hard to get to the gym. If we could reap the benefits of exercise by simply taking a pill, everyone would take it. Although it takes time, energy, and determination to exercise, virtually everyone who manages to work out feels better afterward. Studies show that regular exercisers are healthier, happier, and more productive than they were before they started exercising, and will do anything to avoid missing their workouts.
How does exercise boost your mood? Psychologically, it takes your mind off of worries and concerns while you’re doing it and delivers a feeling of accomplishment and enhanced self-esteem when you’re done. Physiologically, exercise releases a whole cascade of mood-elevating processes in your brain, effects that any pharmaceutical company in the world would pay big bucks to duplicate. As soon as you start exercising, levels of mood-enhancing neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine are increased. More than 40 different types of endorphins—stress hormones that calm the brain and relieve stress—are also released during strenuous exercise. Over time, exercise actually stimulates the birth of new brain cells and promotes their linkage to existing brain cell networks. By stimulating that new growth, exercise helps counteract the corrosive effect of stress and helps the brain to continually re-wire itself and adapt to changing life circumstances.
Initially, the mood-elevating effect of exercise tends to be temporary, providing a boost only during and for a few hours after a workout. Then, after a few weeks, the enhanced mood and feelings of well-being become more enduring, as feelings of accomplishment accumulate, sleep improves, and changes in brain chemistry and function take place. And all of that is on top of the physical benefits exercise brings. We’re learning more about those all the time; in fact, just last week new studies showed that exercise helps people with diabetes live longer and reduces the risk of death from breast cancer.
WHAT IT MEANS: Exercise does at least as much good for your mind as it does for your body. If there’s just one downside to exercise, it’s that it isn’t quite as convenient as downing a pill with a glass of water. I can’t give you a prescription for exercise that you can get filled at the pharmacy. But follow the following guidelines and before you know it, you’ll be breaking a sweat and cracking a smile.
• Choose an activity that you enjoy. There are hundreds of ways to exercise, and the trick is to find what you enjoy and make it a consistent part of your life. Whatever exercise you choose, whether it’s walking, jogging, cycling, tennis, step aerobics, or using an elliptical machine, it should be something you look forward to. Don’t force yourself to stick with an activity that seems like drudgery. Move on until you find something you love.
• Stay safe. In selecting your exercise routine, make sure you’re medically healthy enough to do the type and intensity of exercise you’ve chosen. If you have a significant medical problem, such as a heart condition, check with your doctor to receive medical clearance before starting your exercise program.
• Do it, but don’t overdo it. Choose an activity that’s challenging, but not one so difficult or exhausting that you get frustrated, injure yourself, or give up. If you’ve never jogged before, don’t try to run a marathon.
• Get some guidance. Not sure where to start? In the beginning, you might find it helpful to work with a personal trainer who can assess your initial fitness level, prescribe an exercise routine tailored to your body and your overall health goals, and give you instruction and support as you do your workouts.
• Make it convenient and efficient. Often when I talk to patients about exercise, I find that their idea of exercise doesn’t pass a basic reality check. If you have a demanding career, small children, and aging parents to look after, then 18 holes of golf may not be in your immediate exercise future. But a brisk 30-minute walk during your lunch hour may be exactly what you need. In fact, the fresh air, sunlight, and aerobic workout might make that half-hour the most valuable 30 minutes of your day.
So—back to our imaginary TV commercial. Is exercise right for you? The beauty of this magic mood-boosting remedy is that you are in charge of writing and filling your own prescription. No waiting in the doctor’s office or pharmacy, no deductibles, no co-pays. And watch out for the super side effects!
Jeffrey Rossman, Ph.D., is a Rodale.com advisor and director of life management at Canyon Ranch in Lenox, MA. His column, “Mind-Body-Mood Advisor”, appears weekly on Rodale.com.