Kaothar Lambe

Kaothar is a biologist with a master’s degree in cellular parasitology. She’s a passionate proponent of both physical and mental health.

Kaothar Lambe

Kaothar is a biologist with a master’s degree in cellular parasitology. She’s a passionate proponent of both physical and mental health.

The demands and stresses of modern-day society are putting us at a greater risk of mental disorders, but exercise could be a cost-effective way to enhance our mood. Accordingly, evidence shows that when we engage in physical exercise, we are more likely to report better mental health. 

Remarkably, anxiety and major depressive disorder are among the most prevalent mental health disorders among all populations of the world. In fact, both disorders are among the top 10 causes of disability globally. Consequently, they have significant economic costs— a global estimate of USD $1.15 trillion per annum is lost due to depression and anxiety. This amount is expected to increase twofold by 2030.

What are the symptoms of mood disorders?

Typically, the main symptoms of depression include low mood, decreased interest in daily activities, decreased motivation, increase or decrease in appetite and weight, insomnia (trouble sleeping) or hypersomnia (Excessive sleeping), cognitive impairments such as memory loss and suicidal thoughts with or without suicidal plans or attempts. The main symptoms of anxiety include panic, phobia, nausea, excessive worry and lack of concentration among others.

Mature fitness woman tie shoelaces on road. Cheerful runner sitting on floor on city streets with mobile and earphones wearing sport shoes. Active latin woman tying shoe lace before running.
Those who engage in physical activity are more likely to report better mental health.

Given the significant effects of mental health disorders on individuals and society, there is a dire need to identify modifiable risk factors since treatment with psychotropic medications can be inadequate. To this effect, there is emerging evidence that lifestyle modifications such as exercise may be effective in reducing the risk of developing and treating mental disorders such as depression and anxiety.

Exercise, whether aerobic or anaerobic, can improve mood

Exercise can be aerobic or anaerobic. Aerobic exercise makes use of large muscles and is rhythmic in nature. These large muscles solely derive their energy by breaking down glucose with oxygen. Common examples of aerobic exercise include jogging, running and swimming. Anaerobic exercise is any intense physical activity of shorter duration that involves fast contracting muscles that derive their energy from the breakdown of glucose without using oxygen. Common examples are sprinting and power-lifting.

Studies have shown that exercise effectively enhances positive mood and relieves distress and depression. Both aerobic and anaerobic exercise has been implicated in enhancing mood. Aerobic exercise such as jogging, walking and swimming has been shown to be a great tool to improve mood as it prevents anxiety and depression. 

Exercise enhances the production of ‘happy hormones’

The mood-enhancing effect of exercise has been attributed to increased blood circulation to the brain during exercise. Body temperature is elevated and this activates the hypothalamus in the brain. This in turn induces neurons in the hypothalamus as well as the pituitary gland to secrete endorphin, a hormone that relieves pain perception and enhances mood. Likewise, evidence has shown that exercise, especially aerobics increases the production of serotonin. This hormone plays a vital role in enhancing mood, appetite, happiness, sleep and effective cognitive activities like learning and memory. Accordingly, scientists found that ‘performing moderate to vigorous aerobic physical and muscular strength exercises lowers the risks of developing symptoms related to mental disorders’.

Besides its role in preventing mental health disorders, exercise equally has a therapeutic role in people already suffering from a mental health disorder. For instance, a study showed that physical exercise was an effective recovery tool for individuals with disorders related to depression and anxiety. 

A pretty young woman smiles as she relaxes after an exercise session in the gym. More women stand in the background.
Exercise increases the production of endorphins, which relieves pain perception and enhances mood.

Exercise can be uncomfortable, but it can help you gain better control of your emotions if you do it consistently

Typically, starting and sustaining an exercise program is challenging for anyone, and naturally, this is equally the case for people with mood disorders. Although exercise, especially at high intensity, causes temporary discomfort, your ability to tolerate it in favor of long-term gain is critical for reacting well to negative experiences and for controlling your impulses. Self-control is related to well-being and better personal relationships. Exercise can even help you make better food choices, which in itself is good for your mental health. Thus, the discomfort or pain caused by exercise is negligible when compared with its long-term benefit in terms of physical and mental health enhancement.

Exercise has instant benefits for mood

Instant benefits of exercise have been reported, including mental well-being and higher self-esteem.  However, repeated exercise training over the course of weeks is also effective for overcoming distressing experiences. The exercise intensity needed to achieve positive effects on mood may depend on your age and gender. A recent study that assessed the relationship between physical activity and mood during COVID-19 revealed that men and younger people had to perform intense physical activity to see a beneficial impact on their mental health, while women and older study participants only needed moderate physical activity to see the same effects. 

 Strategies to adopt and sustain exercise

The following strategies may help you improve your mood and help sustain the habit of performing physical activity

 Set goals

A good starting point to adopt and sustain exercise is setting a goal. For example, determining to walk 5,000 steps a day for 30 days or to do ten pull-ups for 20 minutes. Working towards a goal and achieving it instills a sense of accomplishment and joy, which keeps you coming back for more. 

Pay attention to the positive feelings that come with exercise 

Holding on to the positive sensations you feel after exercise can be a great motivator to exercise. Pay attention to whether you feel energy boosts, a sense of physical and mental strength, reduced inner stress or a sudden experience of happiness. Try to remember those feelings if you start to dread exercise. 

Group exercise reduces stress and improves quality of life of life.

Use your support network and exercise with other people

Social support from family and friends can help you sustain exercise and give you feelings of belonging, which positively affects mental health. Group fitness classes have been shown to reduce stress and improve quality of life as well as mental and emotional health. Gather your friends or family for a group workout, or sign up for a group fitness class at your local gym!