Sweat and the Biology of Bliss

Have you ever felt like snapping at your children or co-workers, tailgating the person who cut you off, or ranting about the latest political news?

You aren’t alone.

Not only is this behavior becoming more typical in society, but it’s also increasing. Presidential candidates, government and business leaders, and media mavens are just a few of the many groups publicized for trading professionalism for public outbursts, and tact for temper tantrums.

A new study released by Harvard University may have found a remedy. The study shows that aerobic exercise may enhance emotional regulation, confirming what philosopher Wilhelm von Humboldt said in the 1700s.

“True enjoyment comes from activity of the mind and exercise of the body; the two are ever united,” von Humboldt said.

Just Add Sweat: Exercise Can Keep You Calm

Yes, we all know that one person — or maybe we are that one person — who regularly updates their status post-workout and is inevitably feeling fantastic. Even going for a walk can help to clear your head, re-focus on the task at hand, and better regulate emotion.

Researchers, Emily Bernstein and Richard McNally put evidence behind the colloquial wisdom that suggests an association between exercise and emotional health.

The researchers hypothesized that aerobic exercise may affect the way individuals respond to their emotions.

For the study, they gathered 80 individual participants — 40 men and 40 women — who were regular exercisers. These people were associated with Harvard, either as students, employees or area community members.

They watched an upsetting video clip and were then tested about their emotional response tendencies, mood, and anxiety. They were then randomly assigned to either stretch or jog for 30 minutes.

The jogging group members were allowed to jog at their chosen pace following specific parameters:

  • Increase in breathing.
  • Able to speak without difficulty.
  • On a scale from 0 (sitting) to 10 (breathless, running as fast as possible), effort should be a 5.

The stretching group participants were still physically active but without the aerobic exertion.

Following the 30 minutes, they watched another sad movie scene — a clip from the movie “The Champ” — and completed the same assessment to report on their emotional responses.

They then watched a positive clip from “When Harry Met Sally” and answered questions on the final evaluation.

The study showed that acute aerobic exercise didn’t necessarily prevent an increase in sadness, but did indicate that aerobic exercise may help individuals recover.

“Participants who had recently completed 30 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise were less affected by these initially perceived difficulties with emotion regulation as they reported less sadness at the end of the study than those who did not exercise,” wrote Bernstein and McNally. “Aerobic exercise can improve emotional health by strengthening emotion regulation or recovery.”

Whole-Body Betterment

Cicero, the Roman philosopher, may have been onto something more than 2,000 years ago.

“It is exercise alone that supports the spirits, and keeps the mind in vigor,” he wrote.

Another study at Penn State University of 1,022 patients with coronary heart disease, analyzed their emotions, physical activity, sleep quality, medication adherence, cigarette smoking and alcohol use.

Five years later, the researchers measured these same things again in 662 of the original participants.

They found that people who were more active, reported more positive emotions, sleep quality, medication adherence, and were also less likely to smoke.

The Exercise Equation – Getting Started

Improving cardiovascular health and creating a better mindset both sound like great benefits. Where do you start?

Either one will put you on the path to improving the other.

Should you decide to start by focusing on a positive outlook, or behaviors, you should also concentrate on improving your lifestyle, including nutrition, sleep, and physical activity.

Likewise, starting a fitness regimen that includes aerobic activity can raise your self-esteem, improve your mood, and help you better regulate your emotions.

If you don’t exercise much at the moment, it’s a good idea to pace yourself.

Start with a brisk 30-minute walk that will raise your heart and breathing rates. Build up to jogging, take up swimming, cycling or a different aerobic activity and improve more than your health.

Also consider getting on the fitness tracking wagon. Tracking your activity, along with family and friends, is extremely motivating and fun. It’ll also help you stay on track.

I use Fitbit at the moment, along with their excellent app for training and yoga – Fitstar. They are absolutely brilliant!

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