Have you ever had one of those days where you feel like you’re not firing on all cylinders? You hit every traffic light, you get stuck behind the one person who has never been to Starbucks and needs to ask about the difference between a latte and a cafe mocha. And despite your usual sunny and charming disposition you feel like ‘meh.’
Even with a positive outlook of always looking at the glass as half full there will be days when we all will feel a little down in the dumps. As with many things in life it’s not what happens, it’s how we respond that matters. When you do have an off day what is your coping strategy? Do you watch binge watch trash TV? Knock off a pint of your favorite ice cream? Listen to your favorite playlist repeatedly? Enjoy a bottle (or two) of your favorite wine? It can be easy to blow off exercise when you’re not feeling 100% but there are plenty of reasons why exercising may be the best thing you can do to change the way you feel. Another way to think about it is instead of ‘chest day’ or ‘leg day’ when was the last time you hit your gym or health club for a ‘happiness day’?
Exercise isn’t just for burning calories, regular physical activity plays an important role in mental health and can help you improve your mood on the days that the world just isn’t going your way.
It’s important to recognize that besides looking better, regular exercise can help you feel better too! Here are 6 ways how exercise can help you to change the way you feel and put you in a better mood.
If you want some more ideas about how you can exercise your way to felling listen to my podcast with fitness star Petra Kolber who has created the program: Moving to Happiness. We discuss the role that exercise plays in helping you feel better as well as looking better.
- Enhance oxygen flow: Muscles need oxygen; when we exercise our heart and lungs work to pump oxygenated blood to working muscles. Regular exercise can increase the number of capillaries that deliver oxygenated blood to all parts of your body, as more tissues develop the ability to receive and use oxygen it can leave you feeling ‘charged up’ and full of energy.
- Improve your brain function: During exercise it’s not just your muscles that receive a steady stream of oxygenated blood, but also your brain. Exercise increases levels of BDNF, a neurotransmitter which helps build brain cells and improves transmission of nervous system signals through the brain known as neural patterning. This is why an appropriately challenging workout session can leave you feeling invigorated and mentally sharp. In addition, taking a variety of different classes, trying new workout programs or participating in competitive games can develop new neural pathways and enhance cognitive function. Think of neural patterning as wear patterns on carpet: if you do the same exercises over and over your brain will develop the neural wiring to ‘groove’ those patterns so you can become very efficient, whereas doing a variety of different exercises and activities will create a number of new pathways in your brain to activate the appropriate motor controls to successfully execute the movements required; changing your workout program can improve cognitive function and provide with you a new challenge both of which can help change the way you feel.
- Being around others: It’s well known that positive social interaction is one way to overcome a gloomy mood. With the advent of mobile technology we can become so fixated on interacting with devices that we forget to make time for interacting with people in real life. Taking group fitness classes or simply being at a gym surrounded by other people working towards the same goal of improving their health can help you connect with others which is an important component of good mental health. Simply being around others performing the same activity is a good way to connect with like-minded people. Making exercise a social activity by taking a fitness class or meeting a friend for a walk in the park on a nice day can help improve your mood and outlook. Many fitness studios or group classes quickly become mini-communities and are an excellent way to improve your real-life social network which can help you feel better immediately.
- Accomplishing a goal: If work or home life becomes overwhelming or your to-do list seems intimidating making a small goal of a brief workout can help you develop a sense of accomplishment. Setting a goal to exercise for a specific amount of time, walk or run a specific distance or attending one of your favorite fitness classes can help you feel successful once you achieve that goal. Plus if nothing else gets done that day, at least you managed to burn a few calories and recharge your brain
- How awesome do you feel after a good night’s sleep? Sleep is when our body repairs itself after the challenges of the day and is an important component of good mental health. A good night’s sleep is critical for your brain to recharge and refresh; regular exercise can enhance your quality of sleep which can leave you feeling great all day long.
- Exercise increases the level of chemicals in your body responsible for boosting your energy levels and promoting positive feelings. Neurotransmitters are chemicals produced by nerve cells used to send signals to other cells to trigger certain functions. Besides BDNF aerobic and anaerobic exercise increase the levels of neurotransmitters such as epinephrine, serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine all of which influence your energy levels as well as your thoughts and emotions. Epinephrine and Norepinephrine function to improve energy levels. The increased levels of dopamine and serotonin, which feed into the pleasure centers of the brain, are why many people can feel great or even a little ‘high’ after a challenging workout. It’s common knowledge that taking too much time off of exercise can lead to muscle loss. However what is not as well known is that stress and depression can influence how your brain functions and can actually change your brain chemistry meaning that skipping your workouts when you feel depressed may prolong the amount of time you’re in a lousy mood. The more you exercise the more efficient your body becomes at producing and using these neurotransmitters which may explain why some people might feel like they’re addicted to exercise and can actually feel a little depressed after missing a few workouts.
Don’t just think of exercise as a way to lose weight and look great it can help you feel great too. Physical activity that elevates your heart-rate and gets your blood pumping can be a very effective way to change the way you feel and leave you in a better mood. If you want to prepare for an important meeting at work then taking a few minutes for a brisk walk or a some easy bodyweight exercises can help change your mood and leave you feeling sharp, confident and ready-to-go.
The next time you’re having a lousy day or are in a ‘funk’ don’t reach for sugary snacks or the remote control to feel better (FYI sugar can boost levels of dopamine and serotonin which is why we might reach for junk food when we’re having a bad day) get out and get moving and you’ll probably be surprised at how soon you’ll start feeling better.
Here is a link for my podcast with Petra on how you can move your way to happiness:
If you want a quick workout to change how you’re feeling, try this one I developed for the American Council on Exercise: