Research shows exercise has a positive impact on mood and mental health almost immediately.
Professor of Kinesiology at Indiana University, Jack Raglin, recommends making exercise part of our lifestyle and everyday activities to improve mood.
He offers hacks like going to bed in gym clothes to make sure you get up and at it when the resolve is fading and on cold mornings.
Raglin’s research shows cardio exercise can reduce anxiety and you’ll feel better, less stressed and more relaxed, whether you exercise alone or in a class, or just dance around the room for three minutes every day.
He tells Nine to Noon we are so often resistance to getting into good exercise routines because there are so many reasons and factors that work against it. Injury or a simple change of schedule can easily throw people off.
Exercise can also be the first thing we ditch when the pressure is on and energy is limited, although ironically exercise is a source of increased energy and wellbeing. Raglin says commitment is key, making the decision to give time to the endeavour.
“There's considerable and very consistent research that physical activity actually lowers both physical and mental fatigue and energizes us,” he says.
“I mean you think, ‘well, running a marathon, that couldn't be anything more tiring’. But when you see people once they've completed a marathon, you ask them, and they feel incredibly elated, having these feelings of energy and power, even though they're sort of physically exhausted.”
There are a multitude of options for physical activity and energetic movement and that doesn’t necessarily mean going to the gym three or four times per week for a sit period of time.
“That's all well and good and very effective,” he says.
“But it's so structured that if we have some sort of a conflict or a day when we don't want to do it, we're basically lopping off 20 or 30 or 40 percent of our regular weekly activity that was scheduled and then we're doing nothing.
“So, one of the important things is just simply think about moving and incidental movement and small amounts of movement, even getting up and walking or minute or so.”
Combining regular planned exercise with an active lifestyle is optimal, especially when you miss out on structured exercise.
“It kind of lets you off the hook in a way and it also, in a sense, you're still kind of envisioning yourself as an active, moving person.”
Evening walking to the shops or to work, can have a huge understated effect on us.
“It used to be thought that to get significant psychological benefits of exercise, you really had to push it, the sort of aerobic running or cycling something with a lot of exertion, that would start pumping these chemicals out into our brain and making us feel better,” he says.
“We now know that it takes a much lower threshold to do exactly that. And the other thing is, you aren't exhausting yourself or sweating - you're active, you feel good about it.
He says medical studies show walking and physical activity generally lessens the risk of all sorts of diseases, including cancer. Conversely, when we stop moving health risks skyrocket as they body responds.
“A whole cascade of events happen,” he says. “
“We metabolize carbohydrates differently, our metabolism decreases. Inactivity can cause not only weight gain, due to increased fat, but lean body mass loss. A lot of people say, ‘Well, I started exercising, and I'm frustrated because my weight hasn't changed’.
“But what a lot of people don't realize is that, you know, as we reach adulthood and become less active, we not only gain a pound or two of fat body mass a year, we lose a half a pound to a pound of lean body mass. And that sort of calculus goes into what happens when we start exercising, again, you gain that healthy lean body mass, back this time, you're losing fat mass.”
Although aerobic exercise is important enhancing our cardiovascular system, strength training has the biggest impact on quality of life of older people, affecting the ability to perform day-to-day activities, as well as maintaining and improving balance.
“The loss of strength leads to more what's called postural sway, which happens as you get older.
“You can't hold as still as you used to, you have trouble correcting or let's say you trip over something that takes a certain amount of strength to regain your stride and if you're older, inactive and have less range of motion, then you're more likely to have a fall.”
There are a number of positive chemicals released by exercise, not just a endorphin high that runners famously experience after strenuous exercise.
“Exercise high and getting that high can lead to you becoming dependent on exercise, hopefully, in a healthy way.
“We know now that the sort of psychological cocktail of chemicals that our brain produces - it's not one, it's a whole host of them. There's endocannabinoids, which are related to THC, the active ingredient in marijuana.
“There's dopamine, there are other hormones - it's really an entire array of different neurobiological and neurochemical effects… I think it's reductionist to just assign it to one or the other of these.”
There are other cascading effects. The rise in temperature when exercising leads to decreased muscle tension. Exercise also brings behavioural effects, where you feel like you've accomplished something - a sense of self-mastery that comes from disciplined activity.
“With exercise, there's a sort of relaxed energy and calmness and an increased mental focus.
Norepinephrine is another element that comes into play with exercise and benefits those who exercise cognitively. It is both a neurotransmitter and a hormone. As a neurotransmitter, it's a chemical messenger that helps transmit nerve signals across nerve endings to another nerve cell, muscle cell or gland cell. This increase in neural health is associated with lower rates of dementia.
“There’s also evidence, interesting work done at Harvard, where they found that people, their hippocampus, and other areas of the brain, show greater signs of creativity during and after exercise.”
Then there is the benefit of greater oxygen levels circulating when exercising.
“We get greater oxygenation of the brain with exercise and increased blood flow. So here, we have some cardiovascular effects that interact with hormonal effects.
Exercise can reduce rates of depression too, Raglin says.
“There's a reasonable causal evidence exercise has a preventive effect,” he says.
“That is, those individuals who are more active are significantly less likely to develop depression across the lifespan, and those who are even more active, let's say at a higher level, even have a further reduced risk.
“And there's also significant evidence from many studies that show that exercise has a treatment effect in mild to moderate depression, and I'm leaving out severe depression, which requires more different types of treatment. And there are a reasonable number of studies that have compared exercise to standard antidepressant medications, and physical activity compares very, very well.
The types of exercise dosages are the sort of walking and mild running programs.”
He says these programs work well whether you do the exercise on your own, or in a group.
“And that's important because one of the explanations was, when you're exercising, often you're in a social setting. People with depression are often socially isolated. So maybe it's a social interaction, but an important study done a number of years ago, they had the same exercise dosage, but on your own or in a group. And the benefits were, by and large equivalent. So, it appears to be due directly to the you know, hormonal and physiological consequences of exercise itself.”
For those who need a little bit of help exercising, music may be an answer, he says.
“If music is your thing, a lot of runners will say this, a lot of people will say they need their music. I prefer to be able to listen to the birds and into what's going on around me if I'm exercising. So find that little trick that works for you.”
There are other things that make exercise mentally easier to stick to, particularly for fair weather runners.
“Let's say if the weather is bad, the best motivator is to have a group of people who are at the corner waiting for you to show up in our own research and research shows that one of the most profound boost to exercise adherence and typically only about one out of two people stick with exercise for a long period of time,” he says.
“But a fantastic way to improve that is to exercise with somebody else, a spouse, a group. And so your motivation is not so much your activity but it's your duty to them. Your desire to be with them or not disappoint them.”