“It was the hardest work I’d ever done, and while it lasted I could think of nothing else. I said not long before that work and weakness are comforters. But sweat is the kindest creature of the three—far better than philosophy, as a cure for ill thoughts.”
-C.S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces, Chapter Nine (1956)
If you’re an active person, this quote probably makes you feel all warm and fuzzy on the inside. I know it does for me. I’m guessing you can easily think back on a bad day at work or a stressful relationship conflict followed by a brutal workout and the cathartic relief that came with it. I’m an ER nurse, so there’s no shortage of bad days in my line of work. My husband knows that when I’m coming home after a stressful twelve hour shift in the ER that I am most likely headed straight into a quick, intense workout. Afterwards, sucking wind and covered in sweat, I then find it much easier to relax and talk about my day. I’m out of work mode, have way more clarity on the events of the day, and a lot of my negative emotions just seem to float away.
I don’t know about you, but I was always under the impression that this phenomenon was due to endorphins; when you exercise your body releases endorphins and they make you feel all happy and warm inside (the “runners high”). Some of the more recent research I was looking at, however, doesn’t necessarily support this. Endorphins are basically naturally occurring opiates in your body. Yes, opiates… like morphine. Your body releases them when you’re under stress or in pain and they make you feel better. However, the only problem with the theory, I learned, is that endorphins don’t cross the blood-brain barrier. So yes, they are floating around in your body, but it’s unclear if they directly affect your emotions or brain function. Also, in studies when they administered opioid reversal agents, people still had the positive mental health effects after exercising. The other issue is that endorphins take time to kick in, so unless you’ve been working out for over an hour, they probably aren’t responsible for that happy kick we get.
I found two really great research articles on the science of the many benefits of exercise on mental health disorders. This one on depression, and this one on anxiety disorders. If you are interested in the science, I definitely recommend taking the time to read these articles. They are fascinating to my nerdy nurse brain. So, what is happening that gives us that supercharged happy surge after a good workout? Is it simply the distraction from our work/problems/stressors? Is it happy hormones? I’ll try to briefly summarize a few take homes…
Basically, exercise helps with anxiety and depression disorders in a bunch of different ways. I personally don’t have a mental health disorder, but I know (and love) people that do. Even if you don’t have a mental illness, the evidence is overwhelming that regular exercise makes us much better at dealing with stress, and it just confirms what many of us already experience in daily life: that exercise makes us mentally and emotionally healthier. In addition to the poorly understood benefits of endorphin release, research shows that exercise induced changes in the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal axis that help modulate stress reactivity and anxiety. Regular exercise also raises levels of the neurotransmitters norpeinephine, dopamine, and serotonin which are all feel-good hormones associated with improved mood. Low levels of those three neurotransmitters are associated with depression. On top of all that, regular exercise is linked to neurogenesis, which basically means that you actually start making new brain/nerve cells, and that’s one of the important things that antidepressant medications aim at doing. Another hypothesis is that exercise distracts us from problems and anxious thoughts and can improve depression. It gets our eyes off of ourselves and our problems. It’s pretty hard to feel sorry for yourself or think about the many anxiety-inducing stressors in life when you’re just trying to get through five more burpees. I personally believe that outdoor activity is even more effective in this aspect. When you’re just thinking about putting one foot in front of the other, taking in all the beauty around you, or trying to safely navigate a tricky section of trail, all your issues are on the back burner… and to be honest, when you come back to them, they don’t seem as big and daunting as they did when you set out.
Exercise is not the sole cure for mental illness. Lots of people really do need medications and therapy, and just about everyone on this planet could benefit from some good counseling and soul care. But if something as simple as working out can help all of us live healthier, happier lives, isn’t it a no brainer? Why is it so hard for us to get going sometimes? Let’s be honest, the reward comes after the sacrifice. You have to actually start the workout to get the happy juices flowing, not the other way around. I hope this encourages all of us to get up and get moving when we just don’t feel like it. It is always worth it. I often say that I’ve never regretted a workout. It’s true. I have never had the thought, “Well that wasn’t worth it. I wish I had just skipped it.” Never. Care for your body and your mind. We only get one shot at this.
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