We all know about the benefits of exercise- such as keeping fit, preventing chronic diseases such as high blood pressure, heart disease, high cholesterol and diabetes, and we know that we need to exercise regularly to maintain a healthy weight. Exercise also improves sleep quality as when we are physically active, we work up a ‘sleep debt’ and this sleep debt is dependent on how physically active we have been that day. The more activity that we do, the better our sleep quality that night.
What most people don’t realise is that physical activity is also essential for a healthy mood. You may have heard that exercise stimulates the release of endorphins that make us feel good after exercise. Endorphins are defined as hormone-like substances that are produced in the brain and function as the body’s natural painkillers as well as making us feel good/happy. During exercise, these endorphins are released, and this can produce feelings of euphoria and a general state of wellbeing. The endorphins produced can be so powerful that they actually mask pain. As well endorphins, exercise also releases adrenaline, serotonin, and dopamine. These chemicals work together to make you feel good. Exercise also improves your stress levels as you are able to burn through your stress hormones- cortisol and adrenaline- when exercising, leaving you better able to handle stress. So exercise is a great way to lift your mood.
However, exercise does much more than just give us a short term endorphin boost. Many studies have proven that exercise is an excellent strategy that you can use to manage depression and anxiety. These studies do state an interesting point though- that you need to be maintaining a regular exercise regime of 4 sessions of exercise each week for a minimum of 30mins over a 3-4 month period to really feel the benefits. This means that exercise has to become part of your long term health plan, not just to look good but to improve your mental health. Even if you only exercise for a short period of time, your mood will be improved. Just ten minutes of moderate exercise is enough to improve your mood and decrease fatigue. However, to obtain all the benefits from exercise, not just the mood improving aspects, you should do at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise 4 times each week. It can take up to 12-16 weeks of regular training 4 times a week to reach maximum benefit for mood, so stick it out and let the results speak for themselves.
The best type of exercise for improving your mood is a combination of cardiovascular exercise and strength/weight baring activity. You could alternate your weight training with cardio, or combine them into the same session- it doesn’t matter which you prefer and both will give great results. Please don’t get too caught up in the types of exercise- anything is better than nothing! Yoga is a great as it reduces tension and stress while improving the mood. It focuses on stretching, breathing, and movement. You may like to start with a simple 30 minute walk 4 times a week. Not only will the increase in endorphins improve your mood, but this gives you ‘down time’ to gather your thoughts and de-stress either before you start work, or at the end of your day. You could combine this with 10-15 minutes of stretches or weights to improve muscle tone. Pilates, boxing, zumba and yoga can all be done in a class format that allows you to commit to a routine structure and may help you to stick with it. Join a gym if that’s your thing! However, walking, jogging, swimming can all be done in your own time if you would prefer (and are free!).
Science has shown that the best time for you to do your exercise is first thing in the morning, between 6-8am. This aids cortisol regulation and therefore is the most useful time of day to exercise to improve stress. However, any exercise if better than none! So if you can only fit your exercise in later in the day this is fine.