You’ve probably heard that exercise is good for your mental health, and research supports that there is a clear link between exercise and improved mood. The reasons for this are inconclusive and most likely multi-faceted. Research has shown that movement can improve mental health for a variety of reasons from increased body temperature, improved neurotransmitter reception and increased self efficacy.
Further neurophysiological research has shown an even more intimate relationship between movement and emotions. Our body generates emotions based on the current state of our body through interoceptive and proprioceptive input. In other words, the position and sensations in our muscles and joints directly trigger emotions (2). These unconscious emotions elicit conscious feelings which are cognitively interpreted and lead to moods and behavior. This direct and constant connection between body and mind implies that motor function can have a direct impact on mood and that motor behavior can help with emotional regulation. Simply put: our mind is our body and our body is our mind and one cannot be truly examined without the other.
The majority of the studies available and that I will be talking about measure self reported mood and I find it important to distinguish the difference between mood, feelings and emotions. Feelings are the conscious interpretation of our emotions. Moods are longer lasting and less strongly associated with an immediate trigger. Moods can not be measured in the brain. In contrast, emotions are shorter, are a response to a specific triggering event or sensation, and are linked with consistent and measurable patterns of brain activity. You can be in an angry mood, and you can also experience anger as an emotion.
Sadness and Depression
What a perfect day to talk about sadness. It’s a melancholy day here in the PNW; it’s dark, cold and rainy and it just makes me want to hunker down with a warm drink.
Certainly we can all associate weather with certain moods; likewise neurophysiological research has shown we can also associate certain movements with emotions and mood. Researchers were able to significantly predict emotion based on certain movement motifs (1). The motor elements that predicted sadness were: sinking, head down, hands to upper body, and a passive effort. Now, you might be thinking, “duh,” because most of us intuitively know this. Just think of a classic sad person image . So what do we do about it?
First, follow the RAIN acronym (recognize, allow, investigate, non-judgement). There is nothing wrong with being sad and these emotions exist for a reason. Evolutionary theories believe we experience sadness when facing adversity. The sinking slowing motor pattern helps us conserve energy and possibly shows submissiveness to threatening animals. Further, the hands to the upper body provides a sense of comfort and can help relieve stress. Getting in touch with your own physical sensations is an empowering process.
Second, you may find it beneficial to change your posture. Research has also found that performing opposite movements can increase happiness and reduce sadness. Movement elements that were associated with happiness in the same study (1) were: moving up, spreading, lightness, free flow, jumping, and rhythmic movements. Once again, these motifs don’t seem surprising. After all, don’t we often think of a celebration as dancing, skipping and a fist pump to the sky. Further the feelings of lightness and free-flow are only possible when relaxed and in the absence of stress – therefore signaling safety to the mind.
Ok so now all I’ve done is confirm what you already know. Sadness is linked with slouching and happiness is linked with skipping. Let’s talk about what exercise has to do with this and how this ties into depression. Emotions are neurological responses to a stimulus and are usually short lived (2). When the feelings associated with emotions continue past their initial stimulus we develop moods (ex, sadness). Sometimes moods can become disordered or severe (ex depression).
Considering that sadness is a normal response to adversity it is no surprise that the prevalence of depression symptoms has tripled during this pandemic and for many has led to major depression (3). Major Depression is a mood disorder that involves 2 or more weeks of mild to severe symptoms of prolonged sadness or melancholy, lack of energy, lack of pleasure, inability to concentrate, and feelings of worthlessness.
If you are experiencing these symptoms please seek help from a professional ( I am not a licensed therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist and all information presented is through the lens of a movement and wellness coach). We will include some resources below and in our story.
The good news is that the scientific literature strongly supports that exercise can reduce symptoms of depression, both clinical depression and depressive moods. These studies have included all types of movement, including weightlifting, jogging, and yoga. There are some indications that group exercise and exercise performed in green or natural environments may have greater effects(3). Exercising in natural environments, compared to indoors, was associated with greater feelings of revitalization and positive engagement, decreases in tension, confusion, anger, and depression, and increased energy (6,7). However these studies are limited.
According to the research the type of exercise, duration, or intensity does not have significant differences in response to depression symptoms. That same study found that the only notable factor was the duration of the exercise program and found that programs that lasted for at least 9 weeks had the greatest improvements in alleviating depression symptoms. Consistent physical activity is key!
Further physical activity is inversely correlated with depression and some studies indicate that that physical activity can prevent the development of depression (5). All in all, as a wellness coach I say that physical activity can provide a lot of positive benefits and the best kind is the kind you enjoy.
(6) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5551190/, (7) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21291246/