While we probably won't hear that exact prescription, new research underscores the connection between regular exercise and a positive outlook on life. People who exercise regularly start feeling depressed and fatigued after just one week of forced inactivity, according to the study.
Forty men and women who normally exercised at least three times a week for at least 30 minutes were evaluated. Half were told to stop exercising for two weeks, while the other half continued as usual. Researchers with the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Maryland evaluated participants after one week, and again after two weeks.
The first evaluation revealed fatigue and symptoms of depression in the non-exercisers. After two weeks, they added irritability, sadness and self-criticalness to their findings within the non-exercising group. The participants who were the most fit, evidenced by their VO2max, which represents the body's ability to use oxygen efficiently, showed the sharpest decline in mood. Researchers did not notice a significant drop in fitness among the non-exercising group.
Tressie Bares, Exercise Specialist with Dynamic Dimensions explained that regular exercise can help sustain a positive mood by quieting the body. "Even though exercise is all about movement, energy and motion, after the exercise routine is completed, the body balances itself by calming down nerves, producing ‘feel good' endorphins, and pumping blood throughout the body more efficiently," Bares said. "Exercise helps the body release toxins and excess energy. If you don't exercise regularly, your body stays revved up, causing non-exercisers to feel fatigue. The body is designed to be balanced. If you don't have a constructive outlet for energy, there's no release; which makes the body shift into an unbalanced state."
Thirty minutes a day of exercise at least three to five times a week is recommended to improve physical and mental functioning. Exercise increases body temperature, which has a calming effect on the body. It also releases muscle tension, helps improve sleeping habits and reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol. These changes can help improve one's mood and outlook. "While exercise isn't intended to replace medical treatment of depression or anxiety, most physicians include it in a treatment plan for better mental and physical health," said Bares.
A few of the mental benefits of exercise include:
Confidence. Diligently exercising gives a sense of accomplishment, as you check off one more thing on your to-do list. The physical benefits of exercise, such as reduced weight and better health, help you feel better about your appearance and self-worth.
Interactions. Whether you exercise in a health club or in your neighborhood, you'll likely meet up with people during your routine. Exercise creates opportunities to interact with others, even if it is a simple wave or brief conversation. Take advantage of the social aspects of exercise, as long as it doesn't interfere with your steady pace.
Change in Focus. Dwelling on symptoms of depression or constantly thinking of your short-comings isn't healthy. Exercise helps distract your mind.
Healthy Coping. Doing something beneficial to lift your mood is a positive coping strategy. Abusing alcohol, drugs or food is not. By focusing on the positive, you'll likely have a more optimistic outlook.
The researchers involved with the study cautioned regular exercisers that skipping a few sessions would not necessarily cause a mood change, especially if they chose to do something else positive instead; rather, that ongoing neglect of exercising does show a decline in mood stability.
"Once you get up and get moving, exercise really does make people feel better," said Bares. "It doesn't necessarily have to be a strenuous routine. In fact, it's better to stick with a moderate routine and continue it, instead of abandoning exercise all together because it's too difficult or too time consuming." Consistency is important for better health - and a better mood.