Exercise — especially exercise that gets you breathing hard — has a relaxing, mood-elevating effect. It feels as if you accumulate "stress particles" in your blood, which make you feel tense or nervous or on edge or stressed out or in a bad mood, and it feels like exercise burns off those particles as fuel, leaving your system clean.
I don't know much about cars, but I have heard that it's bad for a classic car to only be driven around town. Lots of slow driving makes the carburetor accumulate gunk. Once in awhile you need to get on the freeway and open it up, get that engine really hot and it burns out all the gunk.
When you get an adrenaline jolt — a worry that passes through your mind or something that makes you a little upset — adrenaline, cortisol, lactate and assorted chemicals are released into your blood stream. Including extra fatty acids. Exercise forces your body to burn all these stress byproducts. So rather than taking several hours or all day for this gunk to slowly get filtered out of your blood, exercise burns it all off in twenty minutes, leaving you feeling refreshed and relaxed. It also burns off the extra fatty acids cortisol has released into your blood stream, removing the health risk associated with triglycerides.
If you go too long or too hard, however, your body will start producing excessive stress hormones, defeating your purpose. You want to exercise so you're breathing hard, but still able to get plenty of air and keep going. And you want to stay at it long enough to have an effect (twenty to forty minutes) but not so long it taxes your body to the point of stress.
If you aren't accustomed to exercising, start slowly, learn how to do it, how much to rest in between, how to prevent injuries, and if you have any medical conditions, talk to a physician who knows something about exercise before you start.
For a method of improving your mood in the long run, regular aerobic exercise is one of the best.
Research has proven that twenty to forty minutes of aerobic exercise reliably reduces anxiety and improves mood, not just while you're doing it, but for hours afterwards.
In a study of rats, they had one group of rats exercise on an exercise wheel, and another group that didn't exercise. When the rats were exposed to stress, the exercising rats released measurably less norepinephrine into their brains. Norepinephrine is a hormone that produces adrenaline. In other words, the exercising rats had a healthier response to the stressful event.
At the University of Wisconsin, and then again in a Canadian study, exercise was shown to significantly decrease anxiety levels in the participants.
British researchers found that exercise not only improved the subjects' moods, but it improved their creative thinking (assessed using the Torrance test). Specifically, it significantly increased their flexibility score: They were able to come up with a greater variety of responses. This would ultimately lower anxiety because it is easier to solve your problems if you can come up with better solutions. In the study, the participants did twenty to twenty-five minutes of aerobic exercise. High-impact and low-impact both worked. When the researchers posed a problem, the people who had exercised thought up a greater range of strategies to solve it.
In another study at Baruch College, after twenty minutes of aerobic exercise, the participants' measures of creative problem-solving "increased significantly."
Researchers at Scripps College tested people between the ages of fifty-five and ninety-one years old for mental ability and physical activity. They compared sixty-two of them who were physically active (exercising regularly) with sixty-two people were relatively sedentary. The exercisers scored significantly better on all mental abilities: reasoning, vocabulary skills, reaction time, and memory.
In a study at Stanford University, healthy but sedentary adults who had trouble sleeping (taking longer than twenty-five minutes to fall asleep, for example, and sleeping an average of only six hours per night) were put on an exercise program for three months. By the end of the study, the exercisers were sleeping about forty-five minutes longer and falling asleep fifteen minutes faster, on average. The ones who didn't exercise hadn't improved.
It was once believed that the brain did not generate any new brain cells. But that has now been proven a false assumption. New brain cells form throughout your life. Trying to determine if anything can stimulate the brain to produce more brain cells, neurologists at the Salk Institute found that mice who exercised regularly on a spinning wheel had far more new brain cells after six weeks than the mice who hadn't been exercising.
WHEN NOTHING WORKS
What if you feel anxious and try to relax but it just makes you feel more agitated? And then you try to figure out what's bothering you and work on it, but that doesn't work either? When you seem agitated for no reason and nothing seems to work, consider the possibility that you need exercise.
A need for exercise can often pass for nervousness, restlessness, or impatience in the same way that being thirsty can often be mistaken as hunger. They are similar feelings or have similar sensations.
If you feel agitated, get some exercise. If you're feeling stiff or sore, and not up to exercising, try yoga or simple calisthenics. In other words, start to get in shape for exercising. I'm not talking about starting an "Exercise Program." Just do something light and see if you feel better. Do a few pushups, a few sit-ups, maybe some jumping jacks, and see how you feel. When you stretch, stretch very gently, more gently than you think will do any good, hold the position for fifteen to twenty seconds, and slowly release it. I recommend Judy Altar's book, Stretch and Strengthen for more about stretching.
Our bodies have clearly evolved to get quite a bit of activity, and the body rebels when we don't get enough. It's as much of a need as protein. We would feel bad and physically deteriorate if we didn't eat enough protein. Without exercise, we deteriorate and feel bad too. It's a need, not a bonus or a thing you might do if you like.
And, one final fact for you to consider: Psychologist Robert Dustman, one of the top researchers into the effect of aging on the brain, found that when people exercise, it keeps their brain producing more alpha brain waves. The alpha rhythm is associated with the ability to stay calm under pressure.
One of the all-time best methods for improving your mood is to exercise regularly.
Adam Khan is the author of Self-Help Stuff That Works and Cultivating Fire: How to Keep Your Motivation White Hot. Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.