By Grant Martin
The physical benefits of exercise have been well documented by decades of hard data. The emotional effects, however, are much more subjective. For some, an early morning workout or evening jog is a source of pure pleasure. For others, the fabled “runner’s high” is a cruel fiction.
“Not everyone is happy after vigorous physical activity,” says exercise physiologist Gary Hunter, Ph.D. “Instead of feeling refreshed and invigorated and having a sense of well-being, some people feel rotten. But for many who stick with an exercise program for any length of time, that activity becomes an addiction.”
Hunter says he counts himself among the addicted, committing time every day to aerobic activity. In addition to enhancing physical fitness, he says he is confident that daily exercise can lead to a happier life. “There is a good bit of evidence that vigorous exercise helps fend off depression,” Hunter says. “No one knows why that’s the case—whether it’s physiological or whether it’s just the sense of accomplishment from finishing a workout.”
Hunter notes that studies conducted at UAB have shown that exercise can reduce depression and decrease anger. But there is a difference between being happy and merely not being angry or depressed. Biostatistician David L. Roth, Ph.D., says the key to finding happiness in exercise seems to be to keep the brain out of the loop.
“We’ve discovered that what people think about when exercising—particularly when running—is related to how relaxed and invigorated they will feel after the run,” says Roth, who has conducted numerous studies on exercise. “People who use that time to daydream or let their minds wander report better mood benefits. For them, exercise seems to provide a release from tension and frustration. People who concentrate on their form or on how their bodies are responding are less likely to report the same level of emotional benefit—even though they may be excelling athletically.”
Team activities or group exercise also contribute to positive mood reports, Roth says—possibly because the shared experience helps build friendships and engages the mind through social activity. The obvious exception, he notes, is competitive athletics, where intense training and very specific workouts are constantly monitored and evaluated: “Runners who exercise at a moderate intensity report better benefits than the ones who really push themselves to the max.”
Steve Mitchell, the UAB basketball team’s second All-American and all-time leader in points, assists, and minutes played, has experience in shifting from maximum to moderate. Twenty years after finishing his career as a Blazer, Mitchell still makes daily exercise an essential part of his routine—although he says that there is a definite difference between competition and personal training.
“As an athlete, I trained and exercised with the mindset of being the best and being in better physical condition than my opponent,” he says. “I was never happy after a loss, no matter how well I had prepared. I trained hard in an effort to never feel the pain associated with losing again. I exercise now strictly for the health benefits, and I do believe that both my emotions and my moods are positively affected.”
“It does take effort, but daily exercise is one of the few areas in life where there is very little need for luck,” says Roth. “If you get involved with a program and commit to it, you are going to improve and you’re going to feel the benefits. I think that’s why there is such an emotional lift. People who exercise feel that they have a sense of control over their health and their appearance, and that leads to a more positive outlook and a happier life.”