No Pain - No Gain?

Wrong! Mood gains occur with moderate intensity exercise

Posted Jul 30, 2011

The good news about exercise for mood is that you don't have to struggle through high-intensity workouts to get the benefits.  With moderate intensity exercise, you can expect an increase in positive mood within minutes after exercise. To be clear, you still get mood benefits if you choose high intensity exercise, but feeling good after exercise may be delayed for a half hour or so.  The issue is that high intensity exercise can make people feel bad during the exercise. And, not surprisingly, feeling bad during exercise is a prescription for less consistent exercise over time.  In fact, in a 2008 study from Brown Medical School, researchers found that ratings of pleasure taken during a single episode of exercise predicted the degree to which people stayed with their exercise program over time.  Just a 1-point difference in rated pleasure on an 11-point scale predicted a 40-minute difference in exercise per week performed 6 and 12 months later.  Pleasure during exercise means more power for staying with exercise.

Some of the factors linked to pleasure during exercise were the target of a major review published in the August, 2011, issue of the journal, Sports Medicine.  One of the consistent predictors of negative affect during exercise was high intensity.  During exercise, pleasure ratings plummet around the time that the ventilator threshold is reached (think of the ventilator threshold as when you exert yourself hard enough that you have a hard time talking normally).  And again, you don't need to push yourself to that level to get both mood and health benefits from exercise.  As you saw in my last blog, walking was sufficient exercise for a group of individuals with chronic depression to get mood treatment effects.   

In addition to the overall level of exercise, self-selection of exercise intensity is important.  An increase in intensity of just 10% over an individual's preferred level can lead to a rapid loss of pleasure while exercising.  But personal preference is likely to change over time.  As a person gets used to exercise, diversity in the exercise routine is important.  And as a person gets in shape, pushing oneself hard during some workouts may become part of the pleasure of the exercise. 

A friend recently recommended cycles to me for workout.  By cycles, I don't mean bicycling workouts, but the use of intervals of high and low intensity in workouts.  These intervals tend to be short, so that you can have a powerful core workout in just 10 minutes.  For example, if you choose to run for your workout, intervals would involve 5 cycles of alternating 1-minute sprints and 1-minute easy jogs.  Such workouts, accompanied by appropriate warm up and cool-down periods, can offer rapid physical conditioning to your body.  And for me at least, they can be really painful.  That 1-minute sprint feels really, really long.  I joked with my friend that during that minute I found myself moving rapidly through Kübler-Ross' emotional stages of dying (grief) - you may remember them: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. The problem is that the minute was up before I got fully to Acceptance, and then I had to start over again 60 seconds later. But cycles are really useful for conditioning if you are in adequate cardiovascular shape for them.  Cycles also offer mood benefits after exercise - you will both feel good and be really thankful they are done!  But you might want to wait until you are looking for the thrill of high effort before you try them.

But, if you are new to exercise, there is no reason to go to these taxing levels.  Pursuing regular moderate exercise (30-40 minutes about every-other day) is the key for starting an exercise habit to benefit your mood.  Choose an exercise you find interesting, and do it in an interesting place.  And don't skip it just because you are in a bad mood.  Bad moods before exercise often mean bigger mood gains from exercise.  As such, skipping an exercise because of a bad mood is like skipping an aspirin when you have a headache. 

Copyright Michael Otto

Drs. Michael Otto and Jasper Smits are authors of Exercise for Mood and Anxiety Disorders: Proven Strategies for Overcoming Depression and Enhancing Well Being.