Improve your mood with regular exercise

Diane doing a squat the right way

One of the first things I noticed when I began working out regularly more than a year ago was how it affected my mood. I was all gung-ho when I started (there I am all smiles learning how to do a proper squat) but about two weeks in I lost my motivation. Andy Wight, my strength coach, had already warned me that it was normal —a lot of people will give up about then. I’d made the commitment and was writing about it here on the blog so forced myself to show up.

Feeling low

One day, in particular, I felt more than unmotivated. I felt down. I can’t remember why, but I couldn’t get out of my own way. I almost canceled but didn’t and that’s the day I learned that my exercise routine had a profound effect on my mood. I arrived with no drive, no energy, no joy — all negativity. Andy didn’t give me a lecture, he simply put me through my paces. When I left, I realized that I felt great. Since then, if I’m feeling low, I look forward to working out because I always feel better. If I can’t make it to the gym, just going for a walk or doing the treadmill can improve my mood.

Numerous studies have shown that regular exercise can help relieve and sometimes help prevent depression and anxiety. According to Mayo Clinic:

  • It releases feel-good endorphins, natural cannabis-like brain chemicals (endogenous cannabinoids) and other natural brain chemicals that can enhance your sense of well-being
  • It takes your mind off worries so you can get away from the cycle of negative thoughts that feed depression and anxiety

Resistance training and depression

Most studies have focused on aerobic exercise, such as walking or jogging. The journal JAMA Psychiatry recently published a review of 33 clinical trials that looked at depression and resistance training (weightlifting and strength training). The overall conclusion was that resistance training “significantly reduced depressive symptom among adults regardless of health status, total prescribed volume of [resistance training], or significant improvements in strength.”

The researchers, who were with the Department of Physical Education and Sports Sciences at the University of Limerick, Ireland, said that better quality clinical trials should be done before drawing any firm conclusions.

What Andy has noticed

Andy says he’s seen the positive effect strength training can have.

I have had clients experience a change in their mental status from strength training,” he said. “Whether it is related to depression or not, people I have worked with have seen a noticeable difference in their day to day lives. I see it more as confidence and self-esteem building when people strength train. When clients lift weights they never thought they could do or perform an exercise they have never done,  the sense of accomplishment is overwhelming.  Once someone has accomplished a few small goals, it opens their mind to doing more activities and having new experiences. That is where I see people lower their level of stress and/or improve their level of depression.

Whatever works

It can be a real challenge to do any kind of exercise when you’re feeling low. If I hadn’t started posting about going to the gym, I might have given up that day I wasn’t feeling so great. I guess I felt a bit guilted into going, but I sure am grateful. Whatever works! The key is to find something that you enjoy doing. There are lots of suggestions here on the Catching Health blog and lots of pictures of motivated people feeling really good about themselves.

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Diane Atwood

About Diane Atwood

For more than 20 years, Diane was the health reporter on WCSH 6. Before that, a radiation therapist at Maine Medical Center and after, Manager of Marketing/PR at Mercy Hospital. She now hosts and produces the Catching Health podcast and writes the award-winning blog Catching Health with Diane Atwood.