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Exercise and your mood

By Tasha McRae

May 7-13 is Mental Health Week in Canada. Many Canadians of all ages struggle with depression, stress and anxiety. In fact, many of our members here at LIVE WELL Exercise Clinic come to us with depression or anxiety. Some people turn to cognitive behaviour therapy, meditation or anti-depressants, but did you know that regular exercise can help guard and improve your mental health as well?

A recent longterm Norwegian study showed that even as little as one hour of exercise per week can lower the risk of depression by 12 per cent.

Exercise can positively alter our mood. It is important to be aware that people with chronic health conditions are up to three times more likely to suffer from depression. Exercise is one option to help improve mood with the added benefit of also helping prevent and manage chronic health conditions.

Research tells us that active people tend to be less depressed than inactive people and that exercise should be considered as an effective treatment for mild to moderate depression. But like all benefits of exercise, the anti-depressive effect disappears when we stop exercising for a length of time. Therefore, to prevent a relapse into depression, we need to keep exercising.

For many of us, when we are feeling down and low on energy we really don’t really feel like working out, let alone working hard. The good news is that we don’t have to work out very hard to see mood-boosting benefits from our exercise routine. It’s just important get our bodies moving. Even a light to moderate effort is enough. In fact, working out more vigorously (above the point where it is hard to hold a conversation) may delay the immediate mood-lifting benefits of exercise by about 30 minutes.

It is often the times when we don’t feel like exercising that it has the most mental benefit for us. This is the reason that we ask our members at LIVE WELL to keep track of mood and energy on their exercise card. It gives them a chance to check in and be mindful about the mood and energy boost we often see with exercise.

HOW DOES EXERCISE HELP MOOD?

While exercise plays a positive a role in managing mood including depression and anxiety, the exact mechanism of how moving our muscles affects our mood has yet to be determined. There are likely multiple factors at play. Researchers suspect that exercise increases serotonin and endorphin levels in the brain. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that keeps our mood balanced (many anti-depressive medications target this neurotransmitter) and endorphins are the happy hormones of the body. Exercise has also been shown to give people a better sense of control, self-efficacy and empowerment which may affect their perceived mental state. Furthermore, exercise may improve our sleep which is also linked with better mental health.

HOW MUCH IS ENOUGH?

We can experience the mood-enhancing effects of exercise with as little as 5 -10 minutes of moderate exercise and this mood-lifting effect can last for several hours after a single exercise bout. Guidelines recommend that people with persistent, mild to moderate depressive symptoms, should exercise at least three times per week, for forty-five minutes to one hour, but as little as 30 minutes has been shown to have benefit. Exercising longer than 10 weeks is often required to see improvements in depression symptoms.

If you would like to learn more about how exercise can help you manage stress, reduce anxiety and improve depression, please email us at or book a complimentary Program Consultation with us.

Tasha McRae, BHK, ACSM, CES/CET, is a certified exercise physiologist and Director of Programs and Training at LIVE WELL Exercise Clinic