May 12, 2014
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 café mocha, and despite your usual sunny and charming disposition you just feel like “meh”?
Even with a positive outlook, 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 binge-watch trashy TV? Knock off a pint of Chunky Monkey? Listen to your favorite playlist repeatedly? Enjoy a bottle of your favorite wine? It can be easy to blow off exercise when you're not feeling 100 percent, but there are plenty of reasons why exercising may be the best thing you can do to change the way you feel.
Exercise isn't just for burning calories—regular physical activity plays an important role in mental acuity and cognitive function, which can help support a positive outlook on life. Here are five ways exercise can help change the way you feel and put you in a better mood.
1. Enhances oxygen flow.
Muscles need oxygen. When we exercise, our heart and lungs 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.
2. Improves 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 a neurotransmitter called BDNF, 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-and-tear 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. Doing a variety of different exercises and activities, however, will create a number of new pathways in your brain to activate the appropriate motor controls to successfully execute the movements required. Doing the same exercises over and over can become boring, which makes it easier to blow off exercise. If you’re in a funk, changing your workout program can improve cognitive function and provide with you a new challenge, which can help change the way you feel.
3. Exercising can be social.
It’s a well-known fact that positive social interaction is one way to overcome a gloomy mood. With mobile technology we can become so fixated on interacting with devices that we forget to make time for interacting with people in real life. 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.
4. 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 certain 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
5. 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. In addition to BDNF, aerobic and anaerobic exercise increases 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. Increased levels of dopamine and serotonin, which feed into the pleasure centers of the brain, are why many people 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. That means 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, taking a few minutes for a brisk walk or some easy bodyweight exercises can help change your mood and leave you feeling sharp, confident and ready-to-go.
Pete McCall, MSContributor
McCall has an MS in Exercise Science and Health Promotion. In addition, he is an ACE-certified Personal Trainer (ACE-CPT) and holds additional certifications and advanced specializations through NSCA and NASM. McCall has been featured in the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Runner’s World and Self. Full Bio Pete McCall »