The holidays are approaching, with their accompanying
combination of celebrating, gathering, purchasing and scrambling.
Open any newspaper this time of year and as surely as you’re
likely to find a recipe for pumpkin pie, you’ll find the common
prescription for coping with the harried holidays: get your exercise.
John Bartholomew studies the way exercise affects an individual’s
moods and emotions.
can help stave off the extra pounds most Americans pack on during
the season and contribute to better overall health, but
it’s also proven to reduce stress and even combat depression.
Understanding why exercise has such an impact on mood states is
the focus of research by Dr. John Bartholomew, director of the
and sports psychology lab and associate professor in the Department
of Kinesiology and Health Education at The University of Texas
Research consistently shows that people experience an
in mood states following exercise, but it still isn’t clear
exactly what mechanism is at work to cause this. Bartholomew and
his lab decided to approach the question from the other side. Can
you prevent the improvement in mood that follows exercise?
found the answer wasn’t as clear-cut as he might
“We used endurance trained athletes, swimmers and cross country
runners, and had them come in and do a test of aerobic fitness,” Bartholomew
says. “We had them predict how well they were going to do
beforehand, and then manipulated the feedback as to how they did.
were told that they achieved a higher level of fitness than they
predicted, and some were told that they achieved a lower level
of fitness. We then looked at the impact of this feedback on their
Bartholomew found that whether they were told they
were more fit or less fit than predicted, every individual experienced
in negative feelings—stress, anxiety, anger. However, there
were huge differences in reports of increases in positive feelings—energy,
happiness, well-being—between those who were told they
achieved what they predicted and those who were told they didn’t.
In other words, there was a clear difference between receiving
or negative performance feedback in terms of feeling good. But
there was no difference in terms of reducing negative feelings.
“This started us thinking that there are separate mechanisms for the
impact of exercise on positive and negative states,” Bartholomew
“The literature is quite clear in showing that changes in
negative states are relatively consistent across individuals. It
matter what you do—you can do a five-minute walk, you can
go on a run, you can lift weights. You can do whatever exercise
you like to do and you’ll experience a reduction in the transitory
experience of stress.”
shows that any exercise, regardless of type or duration, reduces
negative feelings like anxiety and depression.
That’s good news for battling
the busy-ness of the upcoming season. When the pressure mounts
and the anxiety grows, when the
lines for the cashier are longer than you’d imagined or tension
creeps into a family reunion, get some exercise. It’s pretty
much guaranteed to help.
“One of the real challenges is that when you find yourself
under stress, you start to sacrifice certain behaviors to be able
to meet those
demands,” Bartholomew says. “One of the first things
that happens is you don’t sleep as much. You stop working
out. Your diet changes. The problem is that these are three very
coping mechanisms. What’s nice about exercise is that it
is a minimal behavior to achieve a benefit. Even a short walk is
to reduce the anxiety and stress that you are experiencing.”
reduction in negative feelings appears to be based in physiology,
unaffected by positive or negative feedback, by environment or by
the type or
of exercise. Scientists have been unable to isolate exactly what
creates this effect. Theories abound.
Many point to the rush of
endorphins associated with exercise, but Bartholomew says there’s
actually not a lot of evidence that endorphins are the cause. Endorphins
are released following continuous
submaximal exercise, like running, cycling and aerobics. But
the diminishment of negative feelings occurs with even light exercise
or intermittent exercise such as weightlifting.
an activity you feel good about is key to experiencing positive
feelings after exercise.
is that exercise improves negative feelings
through changes in serotonin levels, similar to antidepressant
Another is that negative feelings are reduced with a short-term
reduction in blood pressure. Another is that exercise is a form
of moving meditation
or, alternatively, that it allows for distraction. Even without
knowing the cause, results are consistent.
“I have not seen a study in which individuals have done an
exercise bout and not shown a decrease in negative feelings like
or depressed moods,” Bartholomew says.
But good health—emotional
and otherwise—is about
more than just reducing negative feelings. Consider the World
Health Organization’s definition: “Health is a state of complete
physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence
of disease or infirmity.”
What, then, about well-being?
What about exercise’s ability
to enhance positive states like happiness and renewed energy?
“If you want to feel good, if you want to feel happy after
exercise, then you need to do something you feel good about,” Bartholomew
advises that you focus on the environment in which you exercise.
Instead of choosing an environment that fosters comparisons
with other people, choose someplace outside like a bike trail.
Whereas the reduction in negative feelings following exercise
appears to be physiological, the enhancement of positive feelings
to be psychological. It’s related to an individual’s
perception of their exercise experience.
“We went to aerobic dance classes here at the university and
asked women in those classes—experienced aerobic participants—about
their performances,” Bartholomew says. “We found
that half of them were neutral to negative in terms of judging
performances in the class. The data were the exact same as
previously found. In terms of negative feelings, those who
were neutral to negative showed the exact same reduction as
those who felt good
about their performances. They all showed reductions in anxiety
and negative moods. But if you looked at positive feelings,
a large separation between the groups.”
The happy glow
that exercisers sometimes exhibit after exercise may be associated
with a feeling of mastery. Those who feel
demonstrate a level of mastery through exercise, who feel like
their exercise is an accomplishment, are likely to experience
enhanced positive feelings from their exercise. Bartholomew’s
research seeks to determine what some of the predictors of
a mastery experience
Your confidence in your ability to exercise is a major
factor. Even if individuals with a high level of confidence
a low level of confidence complete the same relative exercise
bouts, those with low confidence are still less likely to experience
positive feelings than the others. The expectations you bring
to the exercise color both your experience with it and your
response to it.
Another predictor of the mastery experience
is what Bartholomew calls social physique anxiety. This is the
type of anxiety
associated with concerns about self-presentation and how people
will be viewing your body.
enhanced social interaction that some exercise offers can also
be related to the positive feelings experienced after exercise.
“It’s an important construct within exercise settings,
especially for women,” Bartholomew says. “We find a relatively
high number of aerobics participants have high social physique
and they’re more likely to interpret their exercise
in a negative way. And those individuals who take the negative
less likely to report improved positive mood states following
Bartholomew has some advice for the average
exerciser to help make exercise—and post-exercise—more
“Have clear goals in terms of what’s going to happen,” he
says, “goals based on where you are now, as opposed
to the people around you or societal norms.
“A very good example of this is to go into the weight room
at Gregory Gym. You’ll see an awful lot of males failing at
225-pound bench presses. Everybody likes 225 because it’s two
plates and you’re kind of in the club, so guys go for
it all the time and they’re not able to do it. That’s
a situation where they’re responding to a societal
standard instead of focusing on their present level of strength,
giving a good effort and improving,
which is something to be pleased with.”
also says that experienced exercisers feel better after exercise
than beginning exercisers. He points out that
is one arena where many of the benefits—emotional
delayed, while the costs are maximized early on. It’s
important for individuals to understand this and to get through
period and know that if they don’t feel happy after
exercise in the beginning, that’s to be expected. The
more positive feelings will come with experience.
“The other thing is recognizing from a health point of view,
you need to do some exercise every day,” Bartholomew says. “And
if you don’t have time to do the normal workout that
you want to do, even if you do something less, like taking
a 10-minute walk,
you’re going to gain some physiological benefits and
some health benefits. You may not feel as good afterwards,
but you’ll feel
And you just might survive that
400th rendition of “Jingle