Does physical activity affect people’s mental well-being?

How many times have you heard that physical activity is something we “ought to do” to avoid developing health problems such as heart disease, hypertension and diabetes?

Do you think exercise is only good for developing a lean body, strong muscles and a strong heart? Well, think again! The good news is that physical activity has also been shown to help us be emotionally and mentally fit.

Now, while the majority of fitness research efforts do focus on the physical and health benefits of exercise, there is a growing body of work demonstrating that exercise also promotes mental well-being. Physical activity has been shown to have a positive effect on our mood. A recent study asked people to rate their mood immediately after periods of physical activity (e.g., going for a walk or doing housework) and during periods of inactivity (e.g., reading a book or watching a movie). Researchers reported that participants felt more content, more awake and calmer after being physically active as compared to periods of inactivity.

So, if exercise can help to elevate our mood and reduce the symptoms of depression, does it have a similar effect when we experience stress in our daily lives? Absolutely! Research has shown that exercise can increase the concentrations of norepinephrine, a chemical that can moderate the brain’s response to stress or in layman’s terms – physical activity can reduce stress and boost the body’s ability to deal with existing mental stress.

How does one start an exercise program, or what kind of exercise is best? Being active doesn’t have to mean going to the gym, running a marathon or wearing Lycra. There are lots of ways to be active, but the key is to find the one that will work best for you. Certainly, jogging, lifting weights, playing volleyball and other fitness activities will get your heart pumping. But so can gardening, cleaning the garage or strolling around the neighborhood and other less intense activities. Basically, anything that gets you off the couch and moving is considered exercise that can help improve your mood and overall well-being.

Keep in mind that you also don’t have to do all your exercise at once. Broaden how you think of exercise and find ways to fit activity into your everyday routine. Add small amounts of physical activity throughout your day and keep them achievable. For example, don’t look for the parking space that is closest to the door but rather one that will give you a short walk. Or, if you live close to your job, consider biking to work one day of the week. The aim is to change the way we view physical activity in our lives: to see it not as something we “have to do,” “should do” or “ought to do” for our health but rather as something which we do because we personally value its positive benefits to our overall physical and mental well-being.

Liza Fischer is the Office of Member and Family Affairs coordinator for Axis Health System. Reach her at lfischer@axishealthsystem.org or (970) 335-2206.

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