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How Does Exercise Improve Mood?

Do you ever feel like your mood could use a little boost? If so, you’re not alone. Many people struggle with mood swings and depression at some point in their lives. It is not a cliche to say that a great way to combat these issues is to stay physically active and exercise regularly.

In this blog post, we will take a look at the science behind how running affects your mood. We’ll also discuss some tips on how to get the most out of your workout routine in terms of mental health.

Mood vs Emotion

The mood is the subjective description of how you are feeling. It’s distinct from emotion in psychology. The mood, as opposed to an acute reaction to a specific circumstance (anger, joy, bitterness, etc.), is a longer-lasting survey of your overall mental state.

Certainly, external events that spur emotions may contribute to your mood; hearing from an old friend will immediately produce emotions as happiness and surprise, but it will probably also have a positive effect on your mood for the rest of the day, even if you are not specifically thinking about it anymore.

How physical activity affects mood

But how you’re feeling can change without anything external happening. “For instance, if you go for a run, afterward you’ll most likely feel happier and more content overall,” says Frank Brooks, Ph.D., a clinical social worker in Portland, Maine. “That’s because your mood has changed based on how you view the world at that moment.”

Brooks describes the typical post-run mood boost which is a well-established phenomenon. Research has overwhelmingly documented that people are in a better mood after exercising – this is true for both types of good moods psychologists talk about: “positive high activation” (such as being alert, excited, elated) and “positive low activation” (such as contentment, serenity, relaxation).

Exercise and mental health benefits

No matter how you’re feeling, moderate exercise can in most cases improve your mood. But for those of us with depression or anxiety, it can be a lifesaver. It’s one thing to run and go from being in a good mood to a great one. But for someone looking to reduce anxiety or ease depression, it can mean the difference between misery and contentment.

When I first started running as a person with anxiety, I’d come away from a run feeling like, ‘Wow, this is how most people feel all the time.’” The change that occurs most days for me is from my normal tendency to criticize reality to what William James dubbed “the Yes function.” My energy levels rise, I’m more expansive, open, and engaged; less sour, dismissive, and despondent.

Runner’s high and endorphins

How it can be explained that physical activity, especially regular exercise, has the capacity to boost your mood?

Most people, runners or nonrunners, will give you the same answer: “endorphins.” It was found in the 1970s that these chemicals, which bind to brain neuron receptors, are released in higher amounts during moderate physical activity. Several studies revealed that greater post-run endorphin levels were associated with better mood. Endorphins or “feel good endorphins” became synonymous with another word familiar to non-runners – runner’s high.

It’s worth noting that “runner’s high” isn’t quite a precise term. You won’t get much agreement when you ask five people to explain it. Is it a period of time when you lose track of time? A sensation of ease? Are you in a state of flow? Euphoria? Being in better spirits than one would expect given how hard you’re working? Because researchers require defined meanings and measurable parameters, the nature of research necessitates definitions and standards that are agreed upon.

According to one research team, a runner’s high should be defined as a change in pain sensation, anxiety level, calmness, or well-being. While these factors can all be quantified, running isn’t the only activity that can impact them. “We use the term ‘runner’s high’ more as a hook to get people’s attention so they know what we’re talking about rather than an operational psychological state definition,’” David Raichlen, PhD., a University of Arizona anthropology professor who has studied runners’ moods.

Endocannabinoids. Are we born to run?

Soon enough, endorphins had been supplanted as the all-purpose explanation for why most runners are mentally refreshed after a run. They aren’t even the only brain chemical that might be relevant. As part of his study on human evolution, Raichlen has studied and recorded pre- and post-run endocannabinoid levels in runners, dogs, and ferrets. Same endocannabinoids that are present in THC and cause relaxed feelings after marihuana smoke.

According to the results of the study, increased levels of endocannabinoids have been found in humans and dogs after a run, but not in ferrets. Because the ancestors of modern humans and dogs ran to obtain food, whereas ferrets’ didn’t, that finding supports the born-to-run theory on the significance of running in human evolution.

Physiology of exercise routine

Your mood is not merely a result of your current brain chemistry. When you run, your body temperature rises. A modest rise in core temperature may help to relax the muscles and make you feel more calm and peaceful. Similar thing as if you would be leaving a sauna. Body temperature can remain higher for more than an hour after running, contributing to the so-called “afterglow” effect.

According to J. Carson Smith, Ph.D. of the University of Maryland, people often focus on the brain in regards to exercise; while that is important, it is not everything. After working out, your muscles are more relaxed and your nervous system is calmer–these good sensations then interpret into a feeling of calmness in your brain.

The best running exercise to boost mood

What sort of runs will most effectively boost your mood? How far, how fast, when, and where should you run? Before we look at what research shows on the subject, the simplest answer to previous questions is: “a run that occurs.”

Almost always, any run is preferable to no run. The majority of people don’t go to bed thinking, “I wish I hadn’t exercised today.” But the opposite scenario is all too familiar to most of us, especially on mentally demanding days. Try to avoid an all-or-nothing perspective of running, says Brian Vasey, a clinical psychiatrist who has long used running to manage his depression and anxiety. “I used to believe if I didn’t go 10 miles, it wasn’t worth it,” he adds. “I’d have a lot of days when the idea of running that far was daunting, and I’d just stay home. That’s not practical.”

Short runs

Generally, people’s moods significantly improve after running for thirty minutes; for me, that lately has been at least four miles. If I’m really having a tough time getting started, I’ll set out on a route with no specific end-point in mind so that I can determine as I run how long to make it. Once fifteen minutes have passed, if it looks like my run will be shorter than planned originally, I try to tell myself positive things like “anytime is better than no time”, or “tomorrow is another day”. By keeping this mindset, even relatively short runs feel successful.

Longer runs

If you’ve ever run for an extended period of time, you know how effective it is in terms of boosting your mood. A previously mentioned study linked increased brain levels of endorphins with feelings of euphoria after a long run; however, the definition of “long” is relative.

In the study, the athletes were highly trained and the duration was two hours but for you, it may be fifty or seventy minutes, or whatever is realistic yet considerably longer run than you do on a daily basis. Regardless of the duration, it’s the sort of run that’ll leave you feeling better after.

How fast should you run?

In his study of endocannabinoid-induced mood enhancement, Raichlen had runners do thirty-minute workouts at four effort levels. Endocannabinoid levels increased the most after workouts at 70 percent of maximum heart rate (which equals jogging speed) and 80% of heart rate max (steady, conversational speed).

On the contrary, after Raichlen’s runners ran at 50% of their maximum heart rate (close to walking) or at 90% of their maximum heart rate (close to 5K race pace for many runners), endocannabinoid levels actually decreased.

It’s a happy coincidence that your average, getting-in-the-miles speed is the most effective for endocannabinoids. So the outcome is that you’ll be in a better mood when you return from a typical working day run.

Morning exercise – healthy daily routine

The ideal time to run for most runners, regardless of their mental health, is when it’s actually most likely to happen. The nonrunning schedule of your life is typically the determining factor here. Not only will this schedule influence when you exercise, but it will also have an impact on how many days per week you do so.

For those of us whose running is key to our daily mental well-being, morning might be the most effective time to run. This is because as work and family obligations grow, we find that there’s less chance of things getting in the way and compromising the day’s mileage if we run in the morning. Plus, if we’re running with others (which usually brings an added mood boost), it helps immensely in not hitting that snooze button.

During severe depressive episodes, early morning runs are more effective than later ones. If I can get that done earlier in the day, I feel better about myself and it establishes a pattern for the rest of the day. If I can maintain the momentum for the rest of that day, I have a better possibility of breaking out of my mental health issues.

Benefits of exercise in nature

The time and place of your runs will ultimately be decided by what works best for you in terms of real-life logistics.

Natural settings are almost always the best choice for your mental and physical wellbeing, according to research.” Studies have been conducted in recent years on how people react psychologically to their exercise surroundings. It seems that being “surrounded by green spaces” has much more positive benefits than other places, such as busy city streets or indoors.

Indeed, according to a study from the University of Glasgow, individuals who engaged in frequent physical activity in the nature had around half the risk of developing a major depressive disorder or poor mental health as those who did not engage in such activities.

“Nature” does not have to be far from civilization. According to 2013 research, when participants moved from a typical city environment to a public green space, their brains entered a more meditative state.

In the study, people did a 25-minute walk through Edinburgh, Scotland, while wearing a device that monitored their brain waves. They began in a shopping district with 19th-century buildings and little traffic. Then they proceeded to a park. After their stroll there, they walked through a crowded commercial sector where there is lots of traffic and noise.

The walkers’ brain activity changed drastically while they explored the three urban settings. Brain activity linked with aggravation, interest, and persistent excitement decreased as the journey progressed from the commercial center to the park; meanwhile, meditation-related activity increased. When the pedestrians emerged from the park and entered the bustling, noisy commercial area, things altered. One type of brain activity – “engagement or attention with directed attention” – dominated in that environment.

Nature seems to be especially good at helping runners get the most out of their running workout.

Listening to music during exercise

Music can help improve your athletic performance in several ways. For aerobic exercise at low to moderate intensities, music can lower your perceived effort—the same pace might feel a little easier when you listen to music than when you don’t. The same thing is true for audiobooks or podcasts.

The implications of these findings are vast, but most importantly they can help answer the question: does listening to music during running make you feel better? First and foremost, if you thoroughly enjoy your run then you will more than likely have a post-run endorphin high. Secondly, if music makes running that much easier for you then logic stands that you’ll want to run for longer periods of time; thus resulting in increased levels of pleasure produced by the brain.

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