With the holidays behind us and the new year in full swing, it’s only natural to feel a little blue in January. If you are battling chronic pain or another medical condition, it can be especially difficult to keep your spirits up. Holidays can be a welcome distraction from dealing with a chronic condition, even if they demand more effort, but when they are over, it’s back to real life.
Families have it tough, too. The divorce rate skyrockets in January as married couples who were “keeping it together for the kids” drop their pretenses and begin the process of separation. With statistics like these, it can be hard to feel hopeful and upbeat, but there is a simple antidote, one that is research-proven to boost mood, increase optimism, fight pain better than medication, and reduce stress.
That simple antidote is exercise.
Feeling low? Take a walk
One of the immediate benefits of exercise is a boost in mood. Just 30 minutes of moderate exercise releases endorphins, chemicals that produce feelings of happiness and euphoria. Moderate exercise has been proven to help treat clinical depression as effectively as prescription medication, with the effects carrying over long-term.
Michael Otto, PhD, a professor of psychology at Boston University, teaches his students to advocate for exercise as part of a treatment plan for not only depression but also for anxiety. “The link between exercise and mood is pretty strong,” Otto says. “Usually within five minutes after moderate exercise you get a mood-enhancement effect.” That’s a strong argument for taking a walk!
Accentuate the positive
People who feel better mentally tend to report higher levels of optimism in their daily lives, and exercise plays a big role in mental health. Not only does exercise combat depression and anxiety, but it also combats Alzheimer’s disease, sharpens memory in young children (score one more for recess!), and helps spur creative thinking. Women in particular benefit from being optimistic; in a study of 100,000 women that began in 1994, researchers found that optimistic women were 14% more likely to be alive eight years into the study than their pessimistic sisters.
Reach for all-natural pain relief
Debra Anderson, professor at Queensland University of Technology’s Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation analyzed five years of research on the subject of older women and the benefit of exercise, finding undeniable proof that exercise should be part of the treatment protocol for maintaining good health and managing health issues. They noted that:
“Studies clearly show moderate to vigorous intensity activity can have mental and physical health benefits, particularly when part of broader positive health changes.”
When combined with programs like mindfulness meditation, exercise can also help relieve chronic pain symptoms just as effectively as prescription medication but without the harmful side effects. Common prescriptions for chronic pain medications can run the risk of addiction, and exercise has been shown to help prevent addictive cravings. One of the challenges for chronic pain patients is getting enough restful sleep, as lack of sleep can amplify the sensation of pain. Moderate exercise is also as effective as a sleeping pill and can significantly improve the quality of life.
Stressed about returning to work? Anxious about the impending deluge of credit card bills from holiday spending? Feel like you’re running on life’s treadmill? Take 30 minutes a day and hop on a real treadmill (or bike) and feel stress evaporate. Prolonged exercise releases endorphins, the “feel-good” hormones in the brain, but even brief, moderate exercise acts on the neuromodulator norepinephrine in the areas of the brain that deals directly with stress. Fifty percent of the brain’s supply of norepinephrine is produced in the area of the brain that directly deals with responses to emotion and stress (the locus coeruleus). Antidepressants increase the brain’s production of norepinephrine, and researchers are studying exactly how this neurochemical acts to reduce stress.
Relaxation isn’t just a chemical thing. Exercise offers your body the opportunity to process stress. When under stress, all systems of the body go on mini lockdown. The breath shortens, the muscle systems tense, the central nervous system starts to panic. If the body is in exercise, all of these systems have to open up and communicate with each other in order to function properly. The cardiovascular system has to pump blood, the muscles work hard, the respiratory system responds. Soon, the body is functioning properly again, and the stress response has been softened.
As noted above, the deeper more restful sleep that exercise can provide further helps the body to rest, rejuvenate, and repair, making the stress response less heightened.
Incorporating exercise into your life
You know it’s good for you, but how do you incorporate exercise into your life? After all, you still have work and a family, plus other obligations. The secret is to keep it simple. You don’t need to belong to a fancy gym or invest in an exercise wardrobe. Aim for 30-45 minutes of moderate intensity exercise five times a week (moderate intensity is when you are breathing heavily but can still hold a conversation).
Try incorporating these simple ideas into your day:
- Even if you live in a house with a yard, walk your dog daily (and watch his behavior improve, too!).
- Meet up with a neighbor right after work and go for a jog.
- Schedule exercise like you would schedule a meeting and block that time out on your calendar.
- If you get an hour for lunch, take a walk for 30 minutes and take a 30-minute lunch.
- Take a “walking meeting.” Who says meetings have to be held sitting down?
- When the weather is bad, play active videogames with your kids. Dance, Dance Revolution is a great workout!
- If you think you’ll use it, especially in the winter months, a treadmill, stationary bike, or rowing machine can be found cheaply on Craigslist or other online classifieds.
Whatever it takes, commit to exercise as you would commit to taking a daily multivitamin. The benefits are life changing, literally, and the improvements to mood and levels of optimism (up) and stress (down) are nearly instantaneous.
Tell us: What are your favorite exercises for reducing stress and boosting mood?
Image by Mike Boening Photography via Flickr