The benefits of exercise for physical health have been conclusively demonstrated in multiple studies. Most people know that exercise lowers blood pressure, reduces obesity, improves cardiovascular health, and can prolong life. But we live in an instant gratification society where these long-term rewards often don’t seem like enough to warrant taking time out of a busy schedule to engage in exhausting exercise. Exercise, however, isn’t just a long-term strategy for better physical health; it can also help stave off depression and anxiety, and the mood-boosting benefits are almost immediate.
The Endorphin Rush
Endorphins act as neurotransmitters—chemicals that carry nerve signals throughout the body. During strenuous exercise, the muscles release glycogen for energy. When glycogen stores are used up, the body then releases endorphins, which can create an immediate high and sense of well-being. While an endorphin rush only occurs with moderate to high-intensity exercise, people who are out of shape tend to release endorphins more quickly. If you haven’t exercised in a while, you may only need to exercise for a few minutes to get this feel-good rush.
Depression, particularly chronic depression, can be extremely challenging to treat, and depressed patients frequently find they have to cycle through several medications to find the right drug. But there may be a simpler solution for depression. Several studies have found that exercise can help reduce depression and anxiety. Even more promising, one study discovered that 30 minutes of low- to moderate-intensity exercise a few times a week is as effective in treating depression as an antidepressant drug. Depressed patients saw benefits in as little as 1 week.
But the happiness benefits don’t begin and end with depressed patients. Even people who’ve never experienced depression can get a mood boost from exercise. The quick burst of energy in conjunction with the increased brain activity that exercise stimulates can help improve your mood on both a short- and long-term basis. Exercise gets you moving and may encourage you to make friends or leave your house. Both practices can help stave off depression and improve mood.
We live in a world where few people will ever be able to exercise themselves into the body that the media promote as being ideal. For some people, this is a reason not to exercise. After all, if they can’t meet the unreachable ideal, then what’s the point? But research shows that even if you can’t become model-thin—and even if you don’t lose any weight at all—exercise has a powerful impact on body image. People who exercise regularly tend to judge their bodies according to function rather than form. Women in particular experience increased self-esteem. A woman who exercises regularly is more likely to admire her stomach for its strength instead of hating it because it’s not completely flat.
A sedentary lifestyle can lead to chronic pain. Muscle tension, cracking joints, and painful knots can all be caused by spending the day crouched over a computer. Exercise greatly reduces muscle tension and can therefore reduce chronic pain. People feel happier when they’re not in pain, and the benefits of exercise to muscle health can occur surprisingly quickly. With just a week of exercise, you can expect to begin feeling looser and to expand your range of motion. Especially if you’re constantly taking pain medicine or rubbing your sore neck, this benefit can be a powerful ticket to increased happiness.
- Audesirk, T., Audesirk, G., Byers, B. E. (2008). Biology: Life on earth with physiology. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.
- Baldauf, S. (2009, November 12). What science is discovering about exercise and depression. US News. Retrieved from http://health.usnews.com/health-news/family-health/articles/2009/11/12/what-science-is-discovering-about-exercise-and-depression
- Gurd, V. (n.d.). Exercise helps depression and anxiety as much as drugs do. Trusted MD Network. Retrieved from http://trusted.md/blog/vreni_gurd/2011/02/06/exercise_helps_depression_and_anxiety_as_much_as_drugs_do
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