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Get Moving!: Exercise is proven way to ease holiday stress

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
Dr. John Bartholomew studies the way exercise affects an individual’s moods and emotions.

Exercise 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 exercise and sports psychology lab and associate professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Education at The University of Texas at Austin.

Research consistently shows that people experience an improvement 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?

Bartholomew found the answer wasn’t as clear-cut as he might have thought.

“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. Some individuals 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 mood.”

Bartholomew found that whether they were told they were more fit or less fit than predicted, every individual experienced a reduction 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 positive 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 explains.

“The literature is quite clear in showing that changes in negative states are relatively consistent across individuals. It doesn’t 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.”

Walkers and runners on the Town Lake Hike and Bike Trail
Research 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 good coping mechanisms. What’s nice about exercise is that it is a minimal behavior to achieve a benefit. Even a short walk is going to reduce the anxiety and stress that you are experiencing.”

The reduction in negative feelings appears to be based in physiology, unaffected by positive or negative feedback, by environment or by the type or even endurance 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.

Person rowing on Town Lake
Choosing an activity you feel good about is key to experiencing positive feelings after exercise.

Another possibility is that exercise improves negative feelings through changes in serotonin levels, similar to antidepressant medications. 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 anxiety 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 says.

Two bicyclists on the Town Lake Hike and Bike Trail
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 appears 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 their own performances in the class. The data were the exact same as we’d 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, there was 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 that they 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 are.

Your confidence in your ability to exercise is a major factor. Even if individuals with a high level of confidence and individuals with a low level of confidence complete the same relative exercise bouts, those with low confidence are still less likely to experience enhanced 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 that’s associated with concerns about self-presentation and how people will be viewing your body.

Two walkers on the Town Lake Hike and Bike Trail
The 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 anxiety, and they’re more likely to interpret their exercise in a negative way. And those individuals who take the negative interpretation are less likely to report improved positive mood states following exercise.”

Bartholomew has some advice for the average exerciser to help make exercise—and post-exercise—more positive.

“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.”

Bartholomew also says that experienced exercisers feel better after exercise than beginning exercisers. He points out that exercise is one arena where many of the benefits—emotional and physical—are delayed, while the costs are maximized early on. It’s important for individuals to understand this and to get through the initial 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 less bad.”

And you just might survive that 400th rendition of “Jingle Bells.”

Vivé Griffith

Photos: Marsha Miller

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  Updated 2014 October 13
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