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Does exercise really boost your mood?

By Michael Otto

In the New York Times, Gretchen Reynolds posed the question, “Does exercise really boost your mood?” There is a clear, clean answer to this question – yes!  In fact, the evidence that regular, moderate exercise can boost your mood is overwhelming.  From population-based studies to well-controlled clinical trials – exercise is associated with better mood.  Specifically, exercise is linked with less depression and improved well-being, decreased anger, decreased anxiety, and greater feelings of social connectedness.  Exercise also improves brain functioning, and has dramatic effects on overall health. These findings have been documented repeatedly in both human and animal studies (in animal studies, depression and anxiety are assessed by behavioral responses to specific tasks).  So if the evidence is consistent, why question the effects exercise has on mood?

The motivation behind this question was a recent paper from German researchers that investigated the effects of a 3-week intense running schedule in mice.  The mice really were churning it out on the running wheel – pawing their way to an average of 12 kilometers (over 7 miles) each day.  But apparently they were not feeling cheery; the mice showed an increase rather than a decrease in anxiety behavior.  It is not clear what to make of these findings, and they don’t parallel findings in humans.  Even among marathon runners, who put in long distances similar to the mice in this study, the effects of exercise on mood appear to be positive.

This is not to say that exercise will always improve mood. For example, over-exertion and worries about physical appearance are great ways to sap motivation to continue exercise.  Also, feelings during exercise are highly variable, especially when the intensity of exercise is vigorous. The beauty of exercise for mood is that you don’t have to run yourself miserable to get the mood benefits.  Moderate exertion is enough to help you experience the desired mood benefits after exercise.

Yet the real challenge of exercise for most Americans is actually doing it.  Focusing directly on the immediate mood and stress-reducing effects of exercise can help with this challenge. Instead of drudgery directed at a distant goal of a fitter, slimmer you; exercise can be used to achieve the immediate goal of a happier, less-stressed you. But still people need to learn how to manage the thinking and procrastination patterns that can derail good exercise intentions. Motivation has been well researched, and there is an increasing role for psychologists in aiding the physical and mental health of Americans by helping them understand and change the many factors that can sap motivation.  It is now timely for Americans to take advantage of this accumulated wisdom for their own direct benefit, on or off the running wheel.

Michael Otto, Ph.D., and Jasper Smits, Ph.D., are behavior change experts and authors of Exercise for Mood and Anxiety Disorders: Proven Strategies for Overcoming Depression and Enhancing Well-Being.

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