Regular exercisers know that working out not only makes them look good, it also makes them feel good. Grandma knew about this link between physical activity and psychological well-being back when she advised taking your anger out on the woodpile. In our high-stress society, we’ve come to sanction slamming tennis balls or stepping out for a walk as socially acceptable ways to relieve tension and adjust attitude.
Scientific evidence now indicates that telling someone under stress to “take a hike” or “go soak your head” in the swimming pool is good medicine. A growing body of research shows that physical activity exerts a powerful feel-good effect that strengthens both body and mind. This can benefit ordinary people confronting the daily battle against stress in an immediate way, helping them calm down and work off tensions. And over time, some experts contend, regular exercisers develop a more efficient biochemical mechanism for handling life’s pressures—a kind of “stress hardiness” that may reduce their risk of depression.
Exercise also may indirectly enhance mental health by boosting physical fitness and controlling weight, which impacts self-esteem. Studies suggest that exercise helps regulate biorhythms, which improves sleep, and it boosts energy level, vigor and cognitive functioning. Research also shows that after an aerobic exercise bout there is a temporary period of calmness lasting two to four hours—which means that a workout can literally calm the storm of a rough day.
This “tension-busting” effect is extremely significant in our stressed-out society, where an estimated 60-90% of all visits to primary care physicians are for stress-related complaints including headache, backache, insomnia, anxiety, arthritis, and herpes, to name just a few.
The Benefits of “Sweat” Therapy
Evidence also indicates that exercise may be therapeutic for people with more advanced symptoms of depression and anxiety. Clinical depression affects an estimated 10 percent of adult Americans and carries a $43 billion annual price tag. Many experts are now embracing the idea of “sweat therapy” as a powerful adjunct to standard treatment, which is typically antidepressant medication and/or psychotherapy. Some research even suggests that, in cases of mild to moderate depression, exercise may be as effective as standard therapies—without the costs or risks.
For many people, exercise may be more acceptable than traditional treatments. Unlike drugs and therapy, exercise is free—or inexpensive. Exercise has few side effects and carries no stigma. And you don’t need health insurance to go for a walk or to crank up the music and dance.
While the link between physical activity and psychological well-being is firmly established, the mechanisms by which exercise exerts its “feel good” effects are still the subject of intense debate. Popular theories point to exercise’s impact on brain chemicals, on body temperature and on “psychosocial” factors, such as being with other people or getting away from problems.
The Endorphin Effect & Related Theories
One of the most well-known theories is “the endorphin hypothesis.” This concept attracted public attention in the mid-1980s, when researchers found that aerobic exercise appears to activate the body’s natural opiod systems, stimulating the release of a morphine-like substance called endorphin that triggers feelings of euphoria. This became known as “the runner’s high.” Since that time, research has shown that other brain chemicals also may be involved in this “feel good” effect, including serotonin and norephinephrine.
Another theory suggests that the temperature elevation caused by exercise relaxes muscles and lowers the level of arousal. Raising body temperature is a centuries-old method of producing a feeling of calm—such as when aristocrats “took the cure” by traveling to spas where they soaked in hot mineral waters.
Some researchers speculate that repetitive, rhythmic physical activity—such as swimming laps or running—may exert a tranquilizing affect on the brain stem and nervous system in a manner similar to rocking a baby. Others note that exercise enhances sleep, allowing people to “recharge their batteries” more fully.
Sweating for a Better Night’s Sleep
In our sleep-deprived society, in which 40 million people suffer from sleep disorders, physical activity can be a welcome sleeping “pill,” since regular exercise helps people go to sleep more easily and also deepens sleep. Fit people typically take less time to go to sleep, have fewer awakenings and experience more delta sleep, which is the deepest sleep of the night, the non-dreaming sleep that promotes the greatest amount of body recovery. Since disturbed sleep is both a symptom of depression and an aggravating factor, exercise’s beneficial effect on sleep may be important in helping to stabilize mood.
In addition to these physiological mechanisms, exercise also has numerous psychological components. The “distraction theory” holds that exercise simply helps people escape temporarily from their problems. Accomplishing a goal, mastering a new skill, interacting socially or getting away alone are all psychologically-based theories about why exercise improves mood. Exercise is generally something people can control, which boosts self-confidence and feelings of competence.
Time in the Sun
Other factors also may play a role in exercise’s mood-elevating effect. People who exercise outdoors may experience the additional lift—and perspective shift—of being surrounded by nature. Exposure to sunlight may be particularly helpful during winter months for people prone to seasonal affective disorder (also known as SAD), a condition characterized by depressive symptoms triggered by shorter hours of daylight.
And people who exercise to music, which in itself can “soothe the savage breast,” may further boost activity’s mood-elevating effect. Also, people who use exercise to relieve stress may be less likely to rely on unhealthy tension-relievers such as excessive eating, alcohol, cigarettes or drugs.
Some experts propose another intriguing theory to explain both the “feel good” effect of exercise and the high incidence of depression in our sedentary society. Norwegian psychiatrist Egil Martinsen, who is considered by many to be the world’s foremost authority on exercise and depression, notes that thousands of years ago, our ancestors had to depend on physical activity to survive. It’s only in the last 20 to 40 years that we’ve been able to survive without being active. We know that inactivity isn’t good for the heart. Perhaps now we also know it’s not good for the soul, either.