Workouts can improve your mood as well as your muscle tone, whether you are feeling down in the dumps or stressed out after a long day at the office. If you are already feeling happy at the end of a productive week, mood-boosting exercise can be the icing on the cake, adding a pleasurable high -- without the sugar -- to your good spirits. What is the best way to find the type of exercise that will improve your mood as well as your body? "It depends on the particular person -- that's my refrain," says Kate F. Hays, PhD, a Toronto-based psychologist and author of Move Your Body, Tone Your Mood. "Individuals have to find exercises that appeal to them, the kind they actually enjoy."
For Hays, that type of exercise is running. "I was a practicing clinical psychologist in New Hampshire when I started running," she recalls. "I fell in love with it. And I became really intrigued by how I was able to problem-solve my own issues while running. As I learned and understood more, I began to incorporate exercise into my practice. Now, when seeing a new patient, I build in from the beginning that physical activity is going to help their mental health. I will walk -- and, sometimes, run -- with my patients during sessions."
- Whatever type of exercises you are considering, Hays suggests a few guidelines: Exercise should be rhythmic and repetitive rather than stop and go to keep your heart rate at an elevated, yet even, level. Think cycling or running.
- Exercise should require little skill or training, allowing you to perform without too much concentration.
- Exercise should be non-competitive. Why risk your mood on winning or losing?
- Exercise should be of moderate intensity.
Remember: these are only guidelines. The type of exercise you choose is up to you. Some days you may be happy walking, but if you are experiencing depression or anxiety, high intensity types of exercise may give you the biggest mood boost.
April Swales, a personal trainer at the Cooper Fitness Center in Dallas, Texas, agrees that finding the ideal type of exercise is an individual matter: a one-size-fits-all approach won't work. In her case, she finds that relaxing stretches done to soft music are the most effective way to beat back the stress of a bad day. Some forms of yoga and tai chi also can help you wind down. Other people battle stress by sweating it out on the stair climber. Still others find exercise classes relaxing, because their stress comes from being in charge all day. In class, they follow instructions rather than give them -- for a change.
"When you are stressed or down, the best thing is to be doing some kind of exercise rather than eating a half gallon of Haagen Dazs," says Swales.
But what if you are not in the mood to exercise? When Swales has clients who resist exercise, she encourages them to start with a short routine of simple stretches. Shortly after they get started, she says, "They often end up changing their minds and doing a whole workout. But it's going to take about 20 minutes to hit that second wind." Try that yourself -- at home or at the gym -- whenever you find yourself resisting your workout.
To boost your mood without a gym membership, the types of exercise that Swales recommends depend on the time of day:
- Morning: Stationary lunges are a great way to warm up the big muscles in your lower body; so are jumping jacks, push ups -- on your toes or knees -- and ab crunches. "You don't need any equipment, just space," says Swales.
- Noon: Put on some sneakers and go for a walk.
- Night: Take a brisk walk before or after dinner. To reap the greatest benefit for both your body and your mind, make sure to keep your heart rate at 60% to 80% of its maximum. In other words, break a sweat.
It's easy to see some of the physical benefits of regular exercise over time. Just look in the mirror. So how do you calculate the effect on your mood? Hays suggests using a simple scale in which your worst mood is 1 and your best is 10. Just before you begin to exercise, notice where your mood falls on the scale. Do this again when your workout is over. You'll probably find your mood is significantly higher on the scale after you workout. And over time, that number will likely stay higher longer, no matter what type of exercise you do -- particularly if it is an exercise you actually enjoy.
"Different exercises appeal to different people, and it's up to us to find out which one is the right one," Hays says.
Finding the right type of exercises may take time, Hays cautions. "Keep an attitude of curiosity as you try different exercises, like a scientist testing a hypothesis."
With the right exercises, you'll feel better -- in body and mind.
Published February 2007.