Is exercise the key to happiness? The movement-mood connection

Mental Health

by Eric Bilder, CHES®

Dec 8, 2020

Picture this: you are helping a friend move. You spend the day bending at the knees and picking up boxes and furniture. Stairs may be involved, and you are in utter disbelief by the amount of things your friend owns. By the end of the day, you have easily surpassed the 10,000-step mark, and you are exhausted. 

Sounds awful, right? Yet, as you sit down to relax you start to notice how you feel. Your muscles, though tired, may feel lighter. The breeze blowing across your sweat glistened brow feels incredible, and you cannot help but notice a smile begin to stream across your face. 

The mood boost you are experiencing is the result of your brain rewarding you for engaging in physical activity.

How exercise improves mental health

Numerous studies suggest that engaging in regular exercise or physical activity has profound effects on the brain. Exciting revelations about the relationship between the brain and body enforce the idea that movement improves mental health. People who move more report fewer depressive symptoms and less anxiety. In one study of health care professionals, those who participated in mindful movement programs ultimately reported less burnout.

If it has been awhile since your last workout, you may feel unmotivated to start. You may think there is no point when it takes so long to see results. Recent research suggests otherwise. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “even a single episode of physical activity provides temporary improvements in cognitive function and state anxiety.” A little goes a long way, and experts agree that any amount of movement is better than none. 

However, there are guidelines for the recommended amount of physical activity the average adult needs per week. Adults should aim to partake in roughly 150-300 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week. This is equivalent to 2.5-5 hours per week. 

This may sound like a lot, but ideally, you should spread out your activity over the course of the week. Better yet, perform short bouts of movement throughout the day to feel energized — all while reaping the benefits of staying physically active. 

If you have doubts about whether you can fit movement into your day, start small. Ten minutes one day may lead to 15 minutes the next, and 30 minutes the day after that. Success builds upon success, and setting small, realistic goals is the best way reach the recommended level of activity.

Squeezing more movement into your day

Ready to start your active lifestyle? There are numerous ways to incorporate movement into your daily routine. Some approaches are more traditional, like walking, jogging or riding a bike. 

Others allow you to get moving without it feeing like exercise. This can be things such as mowing the lawn or gardening, dancing in the comfort of your own home or power cleaning the space around you. 

Lastly, there is a technique called meditative movement. This technique integrates the mind, body and breath to create awareness of physical sensations occurring throughout the body. Activities like qigong, tai chi and yoga are all forms of meditative movement. What is more: research shows this mindful approach reduces stress and alleviates anxiety!

Sometimes, when we do not feel like ourselves, the last thing we want to do is move. Yet, realizing that movement and physical activity have profound effects on our mood can be the first step to feeling like our normal self again. 

Even a short period of movement can positively affect your mood. There are many ways to get moving, so simply take your pick! The choice is yours. Whatever way you choose to move, know that you are doing yourself a favor. So, start small. Start today. You got this.

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About the Author

Eric Bilder, CHESĀ®, is a wellness advisor and certified wellness coach at Baylor Scott & White Health. He received his degree in Health Studies in 2016 and has since been working in the corporate wellness world. Eric is passionate about health and wellness and believes preventive care is a powerful tool to staying productive, active and healthy throughout life. Eric loves the outdoors and in his free time, you can find him hiking or camping. He is an avid believer that with the right mindset and some hard work, anything is possible.

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