Getting yourself to the gym may be the last thing you’re thinking about when you’re stressed out, wiped out or bummed out. But it’s precisely what could perk you up in a flash. Besides all its physical benefits, exercise can boost mood, build self-esteem, lower anxiety, improve sleep and help combat stress. As researchers studying the link between mood and exercise love to say, if you could bottle the effects of exercise, it would be flying off the shelves. Though it might take slightly more activity than swallowing a pill, improving your mood requires way less than you think. Did somebody say 10 minutes a day?
How It Works
According to psychiatry professor John J. Ratey, MD, author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, exercise regulates all of the neurotransmitters responsible for mood, like serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine. It is also one of the best ways to release BDNF, a protein that helps build and maintain the brain’s circuitries. Why is this important? “Our brains are incredibly malleable — and everything we do shapes them,” says Louann Brizendine, MD, a neuropsychiatrist at the University of California, San Francisco, and the author of The Female Brain. When we learn a new skill, it gets programmed into our brain cells and forges new circuits between them. If the route dissolves, the cells stop communicating and you forget. BDNF helps solidify those connections, and is the crucial link between emotions and movement, Dr. Ratey explains.
A Burst of Bliss
So just how much exercise do you need to see the benefits? Research suggests you can get a burst of energy and bliss without even breaking that much of a sweat — which might be exactly what you need in the middle of a stressful day. A Northern Arizona University study showed just 10 minutes of moderate exercise improved overall mood and vitality in people without depression.
If your chin is dragging on the floor, courtesy of a sleepless night, get your blood flowing with a quick jaunt around the block. “One of the best remedies for an afternoon slump is a short but rapid walk,” says Larry Christensen, PhD, psychology professor at the University of Southern Alabama. If it’s raining out, jog up and down a flight of stairs a few times. Bonus: If you have an extra five minutes to burn, a 15-minute walk can reduce chocolate and cigarette cravings, according to Thomas Morledge, MD, of the Center for Integrative Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic.
An All-Day Lift
“We can lift our mood immediately with a single exercise session,” Dr. Ratey says. “But it’s important to remember that it takes longer to change our mood day-to-day.” While the 10-minute exercise study did not examine how long the post-workout glow lasted, another more recent study at the University of Vermont did. There, researchers found that 20 minutes of cardio can give you that feel-good effect for up to 12 hours after.
Been down in the dumps for the past few days? Whisk away the blahs with a morning bike ride around your neighborhood, a quick game of hoops before dinner or a midday spin on the elliptical trainer.
Get Out of a Rut
If you’re stuck in a funk or feel overloaded by stress most days of the week, the best exercise plan for a long-lasting mood boost is to work out three days a week or more. In a 16-week study, James Blumenthal, PhD, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University Medical Center, found that 30 minutes of exercise three days a week was as effective in treating mild to moderate depression as antidepressants. “Mood changes occur relatively quickly,” Dr. Blumenthal says. “You’ll see a significant reduction in depression in a month that continues to improve over two to three months.” Bonus: Working out also boosts self-esteem — which makes a world of difference when you’re trying to break out of a bad mood.
Find a workout buddy, or sign up for a fitness class. Exercising in a group setting helps you stick with a program, while the company of others makes it more enjoyable. If you think you might be suffering from depression, talk with your physician about all of your treatment options.