The Power of Exercise for Mental Clarity and Emotional Stability

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Most people look at exercise as a something you do solely for your body. Specifically, many people look at exercising as simply a calorie destruction mechanism to be engaged in so that that they don’t get fat. Much of our current attitude around exercise comes from 1980s fitness concepts such as the the carlorie-in/calorie-out complex. Doing something to avoid something else is usually a very poor motivator for humans. As a result exercise often falls into the basket of “things I should do” that while enthusiastically embraced right around New Years, eventually ends up being discarded by the time spring cleaning rolls around.

But vigorous exercise isn’t just about your body. Its one of the most emotionally beneficial and mentally constructive activities we can engage in. It generates mental clarity, creative thinking, flow states, and releases a powerful cocktail of painkillersmood regulators, and stimulants. These are endogenous versions of all the drugs that people turn to recreationally or for numbing, coping, and self-soothing. Biochemically its like smoking a joint, snorting cocaine, shooting heroine and popping some Prosac all at the same time. The difference is that neurochemicals are brilliantly generated by your body in just the right balanced amount to give you all the benefits without the compulsive dopamine-reward-system hijacking associated with addictions or the crash afterwards. No wonder it is such an effective intervention for substance abuse and addictions.

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Improved mood, stress, and cognitive function

More important, it is a powerful mood stabilizer. That’s right, exercise combats depression and anxiety and stabilizes mood. In fact many studies show that it is at least as effective as prescription anti-depressants. And there is a ton of research that support this. It’s the same with stress reduction. Studies show that regular exercise reduces the effects of acute and chronic stress. And the benefits are seen after a single bout of exercise. Its not like anti-depressants where it takes weeks to build up in your system to have an effect. These benefits accrue instantly. Anything that combats addiction, stress, and depression is something that the whole country should be paying attention to since all 3 are at record levels. Finally, there is evidence showing that cognitive and executive function is improved immediately following vigorous exercise. Who doesn’t want quicker, clearer and more creative thinking and improved decision making before they start their work day? And regular exercise prevents cognitive decline over-time. Its even being used as an intervention to treat age-related cognitive decline and dementia.


Approximately 30 minutes with a heart-rate approaching 60–80% of maximum heart-rate has been shown to be the ideal range


Best of all, exercise doesn’t cost anything, doesn’t require special gear, and can be done anywhere. The incredible amount of research done on exercise has even helped us to dial in the ideal amount needed for wellbeing and mood support. Approximately 30 minutes with a heart-rate approaching 60–80% of maximum heart-rate has been shown to be the ideal range. But personally, I think you can ditch the heart-rate monitor and test it out for yourself. There is an intensity level and duration at which your mind starts to feel clear, your mood lifts, and you feel excited about, well, everything. Colors look brighter, trees look more interesting and you just feel good. That is the sweet spot. It doesn’t mean you’re going to feel that way every single time but that is roughly the intensity-druation zone you are looking for. You can go beyond that, but its not necessary unless you have some physical goals (cardiovascular training, weight loss, etc.) that you are going for.

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Make It Green If You Can

One thing you can do to improve the mood and stress-reduction benefits of your exercise routine is to do it in some kind of green or natural environment. I know not everyone has access to this, especially in a city, but running in a park, forest, mountain, or any green environment has been shown to improve the mood effects of exercise. Now the studies have been small but they are supported by the ample evidence base on the mood and stress benefits (not to mention, immune system, heart rage, and blood pressure benefits) of spending time in nature. Japan has been the leader in researching and promoting what is known there as Shinrin-Yoku or “forest bathing.” Its even integrated into their medical system. But fret not if you can’t find a nice forest to go run in. Even cycling in front of a computer screen video of a forest showed better mood results than watching an entertainment video.

 

Making The Time

So make the time in the morning. Why morning? First, you are much more likely to get it done if you do it first thing in the morning, before the day’s commitments, stresses, workloads and procrastination take over. Your will to exercise isn’t yet taxed by the demands of the day. Second, why wouldn’t you want these benefits to accrue all day long? When you exercise in the morning, all the cognitive, stress, and mood benefits carry forward throughout your whole day (to different extents)*.

Its pretty easy to squeeze in a 20 minute jog first thing when you wake-up if you lay your running clothes out the night before. Try it. If you haven’t exercised in a while, make it a walk around the block the first day. Then work you way up to a 20 minute walk and then switch to a light jog. Keep working your way up until you’ve reached your sweet spot. And it doesn’t have to be running, which is notoriously high-impact and probably not great to do every single day. Get a jump-rope and do some jump roping. Go for a bike ride or a swim if you have the time and the facilities. Do push-ups, crunches, and burpees at home for 15 minutes. Follow a video-based at-home exercise routine. There are so many ways to move your body and raise your heart-rate for 20–30 minutes. And you can alternate them for variety and to balance your body’s movements.

But do something. Your mind, your heart, and your body will thank you. And trust me, your future you will thank you down the road as well. Keep this up in your life and you may find that it is the best investment you ever made.

(*) NYU Center for Neural Science even assembled this handy little chart showing the cognitive, emotional, and physiological benefits of exercise at various intensity levels/durations as well as which physiological systems benefit and for how long.