Can exercise really beat the blues?

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Can exercise really beat the blues?

You’ve hit the local health club regularly for the last two years. You’ve leaped and spun to the beat of disco in regular aerobics classes. You’ve sweated and strained through the standard reps during strength workouts. And you’ve loved it – loved the feeling of exhausting your muscles, loved how your efforts made you look. 

There is only one problem. All that hard-driving exercise hasn’t done really much to take the edge off the strain of your hectic life. In fact, there have been times at the end of your gym class when you’ve felt as frazzled as before.

If it’s any comfort, there are many others like you who’ve found that what they thought would be a bout of stress-busting exercise was anything but.

And it’s perhaps this growing disillusionment with the mood elevation claims of exercise that is leading more and more people into yoga and similar “meditative workout” classes today. Here they ease into movements that tone their bodies, tune up their hearts – and lift their spirits while quieting their souls. Gaining in popularity in the U.S. are so-called “mindful-exercise” classes that offer regimens such as tai chi and dance movements.

In these classes, endorphins don’t flood the women’s bodies. They get no runner’s high. In fact, they sweat no more than they would if they were tidying up the house. But when Tufts University exercise scientist James Rippe and Harvard Medical School cardiologist Herbert Benson three years ago compared the mind-full-exercise approach to a regimen of brisk walking, the results surprised the experts. After 16 weeks, women in the mindful-exercise class had cut their anxiety levels as much as the walkers had.

What’s more, compared to the fitness walkers, they felt more energetic, optimistic and alive.

That’s right, after years of putting people on laboratory treadmills and asking them how they feel afterward, exercise scientists have come to a startling conclusion; Vigorous physical exertion, by itself, may offer no particular advantages as a stress-reducer. Yes, hard workouts make you feel better physically – but they’re no more likely to lift your mood than if you just sat quietly. Sure, exercise can help you lose weight, which improves anyone’s morale – but no more than if you shed those pounds by dieting alone. Absolutely, staying with an exercise regimen creates a great sense of accomplishment – but no more than you’d get from doing anything you set out to do. But there’s no evidence that exercise triggers any special euro-chemical or biological trick that acts upon your emotions, brain, or stress levels.

What’s more, the way many hard-driven exercisers work has often added to anxiety and stress rather than giving relief. Exercise has too often become a form of beating yourself up. Going for the burn, strapping yourself into a machine, pushing your body to the limit. It’s all about counting calories, calculating heart rate, tallying up reps. No wonder some people leave the exercise floor just as stressed out as when they came in.

Wait a second. Haven t scientists for years trumpeted the existence of direct physiological links between working out and feeling good? Gets your heart rate climbing, they told us, and endorphins—the body’s own feel-good hormones – surge into the blood stream and flood the brain, creating a heady sense of calm- well-being. Push hard enough, they said, and the endorphin rush eventually triggers the zoned-out bliss of runner’s high. By turning up the body’s internal temperature, a good, hard workout also relaxes nerves and muscles, soothing away tension just the soak in a hot tub does. And that’s not all. The longer and harder workout, the exercise scientists said, the more pronounced and lasting your mental lift.

Or so they thought, and so exercisers who’d felt those sensations believed. But growing evidence casts doubts on all the theories. Take endorphins. True, they create a sense of well-being when they’re released within the brain. And yes, many studies – have shown that endorphin levels shoot up during vigorous exercise. But that’s in the bloodstream, not the brain. And researchers now know there are two endorphin systems— one within the brain another in the rest of the body and that a fine mesh of capillaries called the blood brain barrier keeps many substances in the blood from entering the brain. “There’s not a jot of evidence that the endorphins we’re measuring in the bloodstream ever reach the brain,” says Pennsylvania State University exercise physiologist Peter A. Farrell.
Indeed, Farrell doesn’t think these endorphins—probably triggered to dull the physical pain of hard exercise—affect mood at a lie once had volunteers pedal vigorously for half an hour on stationary bikes after giving half of them doses of naltrexone, a long lasting drug that neutralizes endorphin. If endorphins create so-called runners high, he reasoned, the pills should block the effect. It didn’t happen. “Both groups experienced the same small reduction in tension after exercise,” says Farrell. In a more recent experiment, University of Richmond scientists found that strength training exercise actually lowered endorphin levels in the blood and, more damning, that the significant dip had no influence on mood. Endorphins don’t seem to have much of anything to do with how exercisers feel,” Farrell says.
The exercise-as-sauna notion hasn’t fared much better. At the University of Georgia, researcher Shawn Youngstedt submerged volunteers on exercise cycles – once in water cool enough to keep

them near 98.6 degree as they slogged away, and once in water warm enough so their body temperature rose to 100 degree. The tests splashed cold water on the idea that when exercise raises body temperature, your mood gets a lift, too. After the workout, Youngstedt’s subjects felt the same whether or not their temperature climbed.
These findings go a long way toward explaining why there’s seemingly no link between workout intensity and mood. Rod K. Dishman, who heads up exercise research at the University Georgia and has reviewed dozens of studies looking for that link, found that changes in stress levels after a workout were the same whether volunteers did light, moderate, or strenuous exercise. Equally surprising, the evidence shows that regular exercisers who aren’t in great shape and don’t make a dent in maximum aerobic capacity ( which scientists call V02 max), heart rate, or any other fitness measure get the same long-term stress reduction as do hardcore jocks driving their cardiovascular systems into tip-top shape. “Early on, we assumed that psychological benefits would be tied to fitness,” Dishman says. “In other words, as peoples V02 max improved, the thinking went, so would their mental health. But we haven’t found that.”

If working hard and getting fit don’t have anything to do with it, what does explain the mental lift many of us feel during and after a workout?” Says Dishman: “In our lab we’re still looking for a biological basis. But it could be that one key psychological benefit of exercise is nothing more than that it’s a timeout, a distraction from the daily grind, a chance just to get away for half an hour and concentrate on something else.”

In sum, working out seems to bring about the same level

level of relief, perhaps for the same reasons, as sitting in a quiet room. University of Wisconsin psychologist William Morgan, one of the pioneer the field of exercise psychology, had a group of college students work out on treadmills for 20 minutes while another group sat and breathed deeply, repeating a calming word or phrase. A third group simply waited in a sound-proof room. All three teams,
Morgan found, experienced the same reduction in stress and anxiety. Half a dozen other studies have confirmed Morgan’s finding. Steven Petruzzello of the University of Illinois recently tallied up more than 110 studies of workouts’ impact on anxiety.

If one of the reasons you’ve pushed your body to exhaustive to let your troubles slip away, this is an unsettling notion.

A Canadian study comparing people performing regular exercise with chore-doers working at the same found that the exercisers had a larger reduction in stress.

Get into rhythm. Exercise physiologists suspect the repetition lulling nature of exercise like walking; running or swimming has its own calming effect. Indeed, when Steven Petruzzello prepared traditional exercises – from lifting barbells to running treadmills – steady aerobic exercise was the best way to loss stress and anxiety.

Also over the long haul, such exercises are the best way to the pounds off, which is enough to make anyone feel better. Stanford University study of middle aged men and women took up brisk walking or jogging? Only those who had dropped few pounds felt significantly less tense and more self-controlled months later.

Add a mantra. This is no new-age mumbo jumbo; it’s one easiest, most effective relaxation techniques around. “Repeated word, sound, phrase, or simple prayer in sync with the exercise rhythm,” says Benson, the cardiologist who also directly Mind/Body Institute at New England Deaconess Hospital, gently set aside any distraction thoughts that try to push in.” Benson once put volunteers on stationary bicycles for computes, telling half to repeat a calming world or phrase as they called. All the cyclists worked out at exactly the same level complexity. Yet those who used the relaxation technique needed the oxygen, proof, Benson says, that their bodies had managed rest even during a hard workout.

“This way, you get the benefits of both the meditation and exercise at the same time,” says Benson. “That’s important if you’re hard-pressed to find time for both.”

Try a gentle, meditative exercise. If – mantra or no other aerobic workouts just aren’t for you, take a basic dance, the yoga, or tai chi class to at least get your muscles more your mind unwinds. Or, if you love vigorous exercise, add that class to your schedule. A class time screen option: After you swim or run, take 15 minutes to floating back or meander along your favourite path, concentration feeling of each kick or footfall.

1 Comment

Gerald Ogan

March 22, 2019 at 2:03 am

Thank you for taking the time to write such an article. Great job. Will be following your blog.

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