Movement for mindset

How activity affects your mood
Published April 22, 2021

You might have heard about the mental health benefits of being active, but if you haven’t experienced them, it might be hard to believe. Here’s a rundown of how you can use movement to improve your mood, your mindset, and manage stress – plus what to do if you’re feeling unmotivated.

How activity boosts your mindset

“Physical exercise is just one way to boost positive emotion and well-being and there are multiple studies that show these positive consequences of exercise,” explains Valerie Knopik, PhD, director of research for Yoga Medicine, the Miller Professor of Human Development and Family Studies at Purdue University, and a yoga teacher in Indianapolis, Ind.

Physical exercise improves physical health, mental health, and cognitive function, she adds.

“The pathway from exercise to these positive outcomes is likely complex, but our brains’ mesostriatal reward network plays a significant role. This is because, in general, physical exercise is rewarding, as evidenced by increased dopamine levels in this part of the brain following exercise,” Knopik explains. “Research also suggests that exercise can modify [at least] 80 per cent of brain gray matter, which contains most of the brain’s neuronal cell bodies and is involved in memory, decision-making, muscle control, sensory perception and, you guessed it, emotions.”

And more broadly, she says, physical exercise tends to be linked to other health-promoting behaviours that play a role in our mental health.

“More specifically, exercise tends to be correlated with better eating habits, better sleep, stress reduction and positive self-image – all of which have been associated with improved mood and quality of life.”

A bit about endorphins

As Knopik explained above, dopamine levels tend to go up after exercise, which makes us feel good. But there are other chemicals at play, too.

“While dopamine (a neurotransmitter) can help you feel happy, it is often confused with endorphins. This is because endorphins also help us to feel happy,” Knopik says. “Endorphins are hormones and neuro-signalling molecules that function as painkillers. They inhibit the transmission of pain signals in the central nervous system by binding to opioid receptors (the body’s natural morphine). When endorphins bind to receptors of the central nervous system, dopamine (the pleasure hormone) is released. Hence, the feeling of reward and lifted mood following movement.

How activity can help with stress

“Managing stress and becoming good at it takes practice, just like anything else,” says Knopik.

“Consider stress reduction techniques a muscle, like your biceps. If we want big, strong biceps, we need to carve out consistent time at the gym. If we want strong stress-reduction techniques, we need to carve out time to practise.”

There are so many simple methods that can help with stress management, she says, such as: breath awareness, meditation, yoga, exercise, social support, journaling, gardening, hiking, therapy/counseling, and doing things that bring you joy.

“We can find short-term relief by engaging in things that calm the nervous system, bring joy and increase mindfulness. Going to the gym once might help you feel great for the 60 minutes of class. But how can we take that feeling with us? Practising these techniques consistently will help individuals to ‘take the practice with them’ outside of the gym, off of the mat, or off of the trail, or out of the garden, et cetera.”

What to do when you don’t feel like it

If you’re feeling really low and unmotivated when it comes to activity, rest assured you’re not alone. The way out of that is to take small, consistent steps.

“Start small (in duration/intensity), but be consistent,” Knopik says. “This is a practice.”

She suggests thinking of movement like a muscle that you want to build. To do that, you need consistent effort, as opposed to one big workout session.

“Research suggests that it takes [at least] 21 days to create (or alternatively, break) a habit,” Knopik says. “Getting up and moving for a short amount of time every day (as little as 15 minutes) will help create a habit. This doesn’t mean that it won’t be challenging to do it on the days that we feel low or unmotivated, but rather that we are making a commitment to ourselves. Put it in your calendar like any other appointment or meeting and try to adopt the mindset that you won’t cancel a meeting with yourself.”

What to do if you’ve never felt that post-workout high everybody talks about

If your experience of exercise has so far only been one of struggle, discomfort and physical exhaustion, you’re not alone – and through a little patience, you can find an activity that you enjoy.

“First off, know that your experience is not unique, many of us feel the same way when we first get started,” Knopik says. “Second, start small but be consistent. Finally, experiment with different types of movement. Exercise is not a ‘one size fits all’ activity. Find movement that brings you some aspect of joy. Find an exercise buddy that will hold you accountable and that you enjoy spending time with. Social support is such a huge part of our human experience and tying that to physical activity can have such a wonderful impact.”