Working out the science
Researchers now believe that it is impossible to have a healthy brain without an active body; exercising improves the blood flow to our brain and this increased supply of freshly oxygenated blood helps to prevent the degeneration of our mental abilities.
Exercise has been scientifically proven to help reduce stress as well as lower levels of depression and anxiety. Most of us are well aware of what happens in our bodies when we exercise – we build more muscle, get stronger, more flexible, lose weight and have more stamina. But how does exercise work so well in making us feel happier?
When we exercise endorphins are released from the pituitary gland because our brain recognises exercise a form of physical stress. These endorphins help to relieve pain and induce feelings of pleasure and euphoria.
How exercise helps to improve our mood
Whether we are suffering with stress, anxiety or low mood, there is a form of exercise that can help. Why? Here are some of the reasons:
• Regulate sleeping patterns
Physical exercise tires us out and makes us more ready for sleep. It improves sleep quality and duration, and can help to reset our sleep/wake cycle – particularly if we exercise outside and allow ourselves to absorb the natural daylight.
• Improves our memory and cognitive function
Stress negatively impacts the memory causing us forget things. When we exercise and raise our heart rate, we increase blood and oxygen flow to the brain which can help to improve cognitive function.
The endorphins that are released that make us feel good also help us to concentrate which, in turn, helps make our memory sharper. Regular exercise also stimulates the growth of new brain cells which helps to prevent the decline of our mental abilities as we age.
• Produces feel good hormones
Exercise helps to produce feel good hormones and neurotransmitters such as endorphins and norepinephrine, which are associated with elevated mood and learning.
The greater the production of these hormones and neurotransmitters the better the brain and body communicate and function, improving our ability to deal with stress. Excess levels of adrenaline and cortisol, caused by anxiety and stress and harmful to both body and mind, are lowered by regular exercise.
• We have more energy
As our heart rate increases, more oxygen is pumped to the body, which allows both the body and brain to function at a higher level.
• It makes us relax
Exercise tends to make us breathe deeper, which triggers the body's relaxation response. Physical exertion means we have to focus on the body and how we are moving it, which in turn distracts the mind from stress and worry.
• Improves confidence and self-esteem
Exercising can boost our confidence and self-esteem through starting, measuring and achieving goals that we set. Exercise challenges us, develop self-empowerment skills mentally as well as strengthen and tone our body physically. These accomplishments help to foster a sense of positive self-worth.
• It can make us feel less lonely
If participating in group exercise we are open to social interaction, which combats isolation and loneliness.
How long should I exercise for?
You don't have to exercise for hours on end, 20 minutes is enough to reap the benefits. And, if you struggle to fit that in, split this into two 10 minute chunks that are easy to fit in during the day. Why not try Earle's easy 10 minute workout for beginners that has handy videos you can follow?
The best 5 mood-boosting exercises
With so many choices of exercise available, setting a personal challenge to find which suits you best can be fun, motivating and mood boosting in itself. Start somewhere and commit to what makes you feel good. If you are not used to exercise, start gently rather than training for a triathlon, or you may push an already stressed system into a sorrier state!
Whether you are suffering from low mood, anxiety or stress, here are my five favourite exercises to give a mood boost:
1. Mindful stretching
Moving and stretching the body mindfully improves relaxation by helping us focus and move our bodies into poses whilst connecting more consciously to our breath. Breathing properly and improving oxygen flow are essential to mental and physical well-being and both are compromised under stress.
It is a form of active meditation, which helps to open up and stretch the body, improve muscle tone and posture, relieve tension and enter fully into the present moment. Try to sychronise your breath to your movements in the exercise shown below. On every inhale dip your stomach down towards the ground and look straight ahead, on every exhale gently arch the back.
Did you know: Stretching practices that include inversions (poses where the head is lower than the heart) are thought to boost your mood and improve the symptoms of depression and anxiety according to research.
Mood enhancement comes from raising our heart rate and getting the oxygen pumping; but even at a gentler pace, walking can promote feelings of pleasure, tranquillity, and well-being. When combined with being outside in nature we add the benefit of 'feeling connected', which is so valuable for lifting spirits.
Did you know: Walking on a rough but level track requires 50% more energy than walking on a paved road!
By running regularly, the heart becomes more efficient at circulating oxygen so that we can keep pushing and shaping our muscles whilst spurring the growth of new blood vessels simultaneously.
With an increased amount of oxygen in the body, the brain begins to function at a higher level, making you feel more alert and able to focus on tasks at hand. According to studies, a runner’s brain (with regular workout) becomes better adapted to managing emotional states.
Any cardiovascular exercise that increases your heart rate promotes the release of norepinephrine which improves cognitive function. So, if running is not your thing don't worry! There are plenty of other activities that you can do that increase your heart rate -even vigorous housework or gardening can have the same effect! Why not try some of our easy to follow exercise videos such as the one below?
Did you know: The endorphins we release when exercising are chemical cousins of morphine and other opiates, which act by blocking pain receptors in the brain. It is these endorphins that produce the 'runner’s high', i.e. the sense of good mood and euphoria.
Let's thinks about this in simple terms. If we are stressed and anxious, a lot of our energy becomes mind-focused and can leave us feeling ungrounded and 'heady.' The more we move our body and the more of our body we move, the greater the flow of energy to all parts of our body resulting in a more centred state.
Whilst sharing the benefits of other cardiovascular exercise, dancing is creative, varied and open to experimentation, can nourish the senses and can raise mood through vision and music too.
Did you know: Dance consumes a lot of energy! A three-hour ballet dance is equivalent to two 90-minute soccer games or running 19 miles!
Swimming can have a relaxing and meditative effect on the body and mind, whilst at the same time providing many of the benefits (and less stress to the physical body) of more seemingly challenging forms of exercise. Most of the muscles in the body are required for swimming, as is more conscious breathing. And exercises that may be challenging to perform on dry ground are much easier under water.
Did you know: As with any other type of exercise, you need to stay hydrated while swimming and you need to drink water. Your core body temperature can rise as the activity increases. Your body also produces sweat as it does with other physical activity, but it is not as apparent since you are already wet.
What’s your favourite way to get moving and mood improving? Let us know in the comments below!