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Exercise yourself happy


Professor Andy Lane, Professor in sport psychology and Associate Dean in the Faculty of Education, Health and Wellbeing blogs about how he has been exercising to improve his mental health during the pandemic and the positive impact it’s had on boosting his mood.

We all experience moods, sometimes these moods are negative where we feel angry, depressed, confused, and upset while at other times our moods are positive where we feel excited, vigorous, energised, and happy. Our moods and emotions vary with what is going on around us. For example, when you are on holiday or at a social gathering, people try to be in a good mood and that good mood is contagious.  In contrast, having an argument with someone, or receiving criticism will generally lead to negative moods. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented a massive challenge to manage our moods and keep our mindset positive and our feelings pleasant. At the University of Wolverhampton, we have a long-standing interest in how people regulate their emotions, cope with life stresses, and achieve their goals. One of the most effective ways of managing your mood is through exercise.

During the pandemic, I used exercise as a mood regulation strategy (see Lane, 2021), by setting a challenge to do one chin-up every day during the first lockdown. I did chin-ups until the gyms re-opened as it was vague when the lockdown ended. I ended up doing 125 chin-ups on the final day and created an intentionally funny video in another amusing attempt to ‘boost my mood’.

I enjoy exercising and enjoy taking on challenges where there is a goal to learn and develop a new skill and where you can see progress. I have a strong sense of physical self-esteem and felt a great deal of satisfaction in being able to complete the chin-up challenge.  

One question that is asked regarding the effectiveness of exercise to regulate moods is ‘which type of exercise should I do?’ People re-suppose that one exercise is more effective at changing your mood than another. However, the answer to that question is simple, you select the exercise you enjoy doing the most. For most people, this tends to be activities such as running, walking, cycling or playing an independent sport such as golf.  Whereas others get a great deal of satisfaction from circuit training, weight training, sprint training and playing team sports.

Therefore, one suggestion is that you pay attention to how good you feel before, during and after exercise and make a note of which activity leads to the best change in moods.  Keeping a record of how a particular training session has gone is a great way to also track progress, this gives a sense of accomplishment, and this can be a big motivator thus improving our mood. In my case, I got excited by the size of the challenge – by creating targets and goals I was able to focus my attention and determined to take the challenge on.  

One reason why exercise is a very good strategy for improving mood, is because the mind and body are connected. Exercise diverts blood to the working muscles and helps shift attention from factors which are causing unpleasant feelings. As most people have a goal of wishing to be fit and healthy, and exercise is commonly seen as a good strategy to achieve this, then people see exercising as something that is improving their physical well-being. Of course, evidence also shows that there is a dual benefit of enhancing physical and mental well-being. Too often the goal of exercise portrayed in the media is one of aesthetics, although to some this is important, it can be a barrier to others who feel the goal is an unachievable one and comparisons to others have a negative effect on mood.   

A second reason on how exercise is good for improving mental health is that it strengthens beliefs that difficult goals can be achieved. Exercise involves overcoming the urge to stop which helps strengthens self-confidence belief that you can achieve difficult goals and regular exercise provides an opportunity in which to train this mindset. This resilience can be taken into all aspects of your work/life and is a valuable tool to dip into when things are maybe not going as you would like, the urge to quit or feel disheartened is a normal occurrence. Being able to reflect on difficult times when you did not achieve your goals and you carried on and accomplished is something that exercise can help to capture. 

Learn to love exercise – this will take time, but when you’re in the right mindset you will recognise the benefits and start to build it as part of your routine and enjoy it.  

Many people start off with very negative attitudes toward exercise often based on experiences during school. People also have low-efficacy beliefs in being able to cope with sensations of fatigue and a high expectation that they will be put into a situation where the lack of fitness will be exposed in a public setting. Is it important for exercise instructors and gymnasiums to consider the mindset of people who are learning to enjoy exercise and try to make it enjoyable.  

During the current restrictions, exercise has become an opportunity for many to take a break from their computer - the natural breaks between the office and home have been disrupted so it is even more important to find the time to separate the two. A walk before starting the day, a run during your lunch break, putting the laptop away and a bike ride with your family has become increasingly important downtime and helped many find a balanced lifestyle. I argue that finding time to manage mood is important; if your mood is positive, then there is a good chance you will be positive towards others and as I’ve said - mood is contagious!

Here’s some of my top tips before you start your workout:

Change your surroundings

One way in which people can facilitate exercise to be an enjoyable experience is to alter the environment in which its conducted. Being close to nature - whether on land or in water - has been found to restore a sense of feeling energised and shift attention away from unwanted feelings.

Recent research has begun to see if exercising in nature can have an additive effect, and logically if you enjoy exercising then this experience can be enhanced if the exercise is conducted in a natural and beautiful setting. If being in nature is not possible then you can create a pleasant and mood-enhancing environment through listening to music.

Exercise with music

Research has shown that exercising synchronously to the beat with music can make it easier and therefore in the early stage of learning to exercise synchronising movement to music can create the sense of being run along by the track. Research has also found that music can enhance mood when it is asynchronous that is not moving to the beat. With asynchronous music, key factors include having a motivating rhythm, having inspirational lyrics, having a strong beat, and music that you grew up during your formative years often connect back to powerful memories. Overall, music is an exceptionally good strategy to use to reconnect with positive experiences from the past and therefore when feeling down, exercising to music, and helping bring back positive memories is a good strategy to use.  

Set yourself a goal

Setting a challenging goal is a good strategy and keeps you focused. Why not set a challenge for yourself and via the training you make, progress gained, you learn to manage your mood via exercise.

Join the BRIT challenge

If you’re looking to improve your mental health through exercise, join WLV Sport as we tackle the BRIT challenge starting February 1 to raise funds and awareness of young adult mental health.

To find out more and to join the challenge click here.

For more information please contact the Corporate Communications Team.

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