Emotions Running High - The psychological benefits of exercise

Tousled hair, red faced and glowing in perspiration; the signs of a good work out at boot camp. I feel energised, enthusiastic and euphoric! And that's just it - when we exercise our body releases chemicals known as endorphins and that's why athletes often describe the feeling after a run as 'runners high'. No wonder children are so happy with all their frolicking, jumping and playing.

Exercise does not have to mean endless, arduous lengths of the local swimming pool. It can be anything that gets you off the couch and moving. An hour’s housework may burn the calorie content of a chocolate bar but it also boosts your mood, and not just because the house is now tidy. The same goes for other everyday tasks like washing your car, taking a stroll around the block, or walking instead of driving to the shop. Gardening is a great activity because it has the added advantage of showing the results of your efforts, which can be a great motivator.

People know that exercise promotes physical outcomes like weight loss and reduces diabetes, cholesterol and heart disease, but there is much less awareness of the mental health outcomes. Yet, if you've ever gone for a run after a stressful day, chances are you felt better afterward. Research suggests that within five minutes of moderate exercise, you get a mood enhancing effect, and the psychological effects of physical activity extend beyond the short-term. There is evidence to suggest that exercise can also help alleviate long-term depression.

James Blumenthal, PhD and clinical psychologist at Duke University found that exercise is also important in preventing a relapse in depression. However, it's unclear exactly how moving our muscles can have such a significant effect on mental health. Some researchers suspect exercise alleviates chronic depression by increasing serotonin – the neurotransmitter targeted by antidepressants, and supports the growth of brain neurons.  It is also suggested that exercise helps depression due to the increased heart rate and body temperature which can have calming effects.
Another theory suggests exercise helps by normalising sleep, which is known to have protective effects on the brain. This is why I often recommend a stroll before bedtime to clients who have trouble sleeping. But, if you are taking an evening stroll to aid your sleep, do so early in the evening. That way you can return home more relaxed; shower, change and enjoy a Chamomile tea before a soothing slumber.

Broaden how you think of exercise and find ways to fit activity into your routine. Add small amounts of physical activity throughout your day. For example, take the stairs instead of the elevator. Or, if you live close to your job, consider biking to work.
There are psychological and emotional explanations too. Exercise may boost a depressed person's outlook by helping them return to meaningful activity and providing a sense of accomplishment. It can help distract from everyday drama and provide a clearer space to think. Socially, it can give an opportunity to engage with new people. Longer term, it can generate a much more positive outlook, by setting goals and challenges we can work towards achieving, we get a sense of purpose and accomplishment – which leads to increased levels of confidence and self-belief.

When you have depression or anxiety, exercise often seems like the last thing you want to do. Mustering up the energy to even get out of bed during our worst moments can be a real struggle. If you feel this way, you’re not alone. Nearly everyone I have spoken to has experienced supreme difficulty exercising while depressed – although not one of these people ever reported feeling worse after a walk. It is one of the first and most simple steps you can take in reducing mild depression. Failing to exercise when you feel down is like eating chocolate when you’ve a toothache!

Contact with a friend can be a great source of emotional support and compassion. Have you ever noticed how a ‘walk and talk’ with a friend leaves you feeling lighter? Walking can take the edge off any feelings of awkwardness or nervous anxiety, whether talking about depression or any other subject. You’re not exclusively focused on the conversation and person you are with. I would nearly encourage therapists to walk outside with their clients if given the opportunity. It offers new perspective and allows the client to access emotions freely.

The question remains, if exercise makes us feel so good, why is it so hard to do it?  Research once again shows us that self-control is highly correlated with the size and activity of the brain’s frontal lobes - the large area behind the forehead and the most recently evolved part of the brain responsible for planning, decision making and goal setting. This pre-frontal cortex handles willpower like a muscle, and like a muscle, it can be trained. It’s something you have to slowly build over time; otherwise too much strain will tap your willpower out.

Starting out too hard in a new exercise regime may be one of the reasons people scorn physical activity. So remember to start small and start slow - we stick to our goals when they are realistic so make exercise plans you think you can keep. Take one thing at a time. In the same way you might write a list of all the things you need to do, start by working on one thing at a time. Otherwise it can all become overwhelming. Just as bad habits take time to develop, it takes time to form good habits too.

As the saying goes, there really is strength in numbers. By enlisting the help of another you are showing your commitment to achieving this goal and you are also acknowledging your limitations. Talk about your objectives with friends and family; explain what they mean to you and ask them to help you achieve your goals. If you can join a group with the same interests, you’ll be more inclined to keep motivated and keep exercising. And once you do get motivated, exercise can make a big difference!
Finally, when you’re out and about in nature, focus on the present moment and observe plants, animals, flowers and smells. Being in the present moment can help you cultivate gratitude and focus on the good things and people you have in your life – something that’s liable to be forgotten amid the heavy fog of negative thoughts that loop in our mind during a period of depression. Science shows us what we know on an intuitive level: exercise makes us happy. The proof is most definitely not in the pudding!

About the author: 

Sinéad Lynch is a qualified counsellor and psychotherapist working in South Dublin. Having studied a B.A in Psychology (U.C.D) she then completed a H.Dip in Counselling and Psychotherapy (D.C.U). Sinéad currently splits her time between RTÉ and her work as a psychotherapist. Sinéad’s ambition is to continue highlighting mental health issues by creating awareness at www.silverlinings.ie