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Feeling a little down in the dumps? It turns out that a modest exercise program — even just taking regular walks — can improve your mood significantly.
“There has been a lot of debate about whether exercise is helpful for mood and it turns out that it is,” says Dr. Michael C. Miller, member of the Department of Psychiatry at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Editor-in-Chief of the Harvard Mental Health Letter.
“In some ways, exercise at a certain level can actually be, for some people, the equivalent to taking an antidepressant,” he says. “The problem is that it is a lot easier to take an antidepressant than to go on a regular exercise program.”
For that reason, Dr. Miller recommends people who want to boost their mood by exercising pick a program that is easy and enjoyable for them to do for an extended period of time. For many people, that is regular walks.
“Don’t discourage yourself by trying to do more than you can do,” he says. “It’s not all or nothing. For the average sedentary person, even walking ten minutes a day is helpful. When it comes to mood improvements, anything you do counts. Those who have studied this have learned that it’s not how much you do, but how persistent you are. People begin to see benefits after two months of any kind of sustained activity.”
Simple strategies may include parking a little farther away from your place of work than usual or walking up and down stairs instead of taking the elevator.
Dr. Miller says the mood benefits of modest exercise such as walking are not the same as the “runner’s high” that comes with a release of endorphins following a rigorous workout. “Very few people actually achieve that,” he says, noting that this type of a mood boost is similar to the sense of well-being a person feels after taking a low dose of an opiate pain killer, like codeine or Percocet.
The mood benefits of regular, modest exercise, including walking, are different. The effect is that the brain seems to function better on a variety of levels.
For one thing, regular exercise increases blood and energy flow to the brain, improving mental acuity.
A 1999 study of people over 60 found that walking 45 minutes a day at a 16-minute mile pace increased their thinking skills. Subjects started at 15 minutes of walking and built up their time and speed. The result was that they were found to be mentally sharper after taking up the walking program.
For another, genes in nerve cells that signal the production of proteins that promote nerve cell growth seem to work more efficiently with exercise.
“The brain’s nerve cells are more robust, they branch out and make connections more easily, particularly those in the parts of the brain that grow when you take an antidepressant,” Dr. Miller says.
“We don’t know exactly how this happens,” he concedes. “But from the evidence of images of the brain taken before and after exercise, there seems to be improvement in areas of the brain responsible for regulating mood.”
Even a single exercise session can produce improvements. A study by University of Texas researchers had people with major depressive disorders either rest quietly or walk on a treadmill for 30 minutes and tested their mood afterwards. Both groups saw improvements in mood, but those who walked on the treadmill had more positive feelings of well-being and vigor. The study was published in the December 2005 issue of Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise.
But Dr. Miller warns that exercise may not be a realistic treatment for severe depression. For one thing, “it’s difficult to get motivated to do anything when you are that depressed,” he says. That’s why those who are severely depressed should talk to their doctor, he says. They may need to try antidepressants or talk therapy or both.
“But in terms of general health, there is virtually no downside to exercise. It seems to make your brain work better,” he says. “It gives your brain needs with very few side effects.”
Want to start an exercise routine? Try walking. Join the BIDMC Walking Club and get a cool wristband, tips, and a FREE pedometer app for your phone to get you started.
Above content provided by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.
Posted: May 2013