Anyone who has been working out for any length of time knows that some days it's harder to get started than others. There are those days when you're just not feeling it. Maybe it's stress or a little depression, or just a feeling of apathy, and you don't want to do anything more strenuous than get out of bed.
Exercise impacts your mood in positive ways, but your mood can also affect your workout. Understand the connection to get all the benefits of regular exercise and to help motivate yourself and your clients.
Whether you're feeling good or feeling down, your mental health impacts how, when, and if you work out. Mental and physical health are inextricably linked. It's important to understand the connection and to be tuned into your mood.
Your mood is variable and personal, and the truth is that everyone responds a little differently when it comes to working out or performance. Some people find that an angry or irritable mood makes them work out harder, while others can't focus enough to get into it. What is certain is that mood can impact your workout for the better or the worse.
For most people, a good mood will lead to a good workout. If you're feeling energized, upbeat, and positive, it's easier to feel motivated to get to the gym and perform.
There are not many studies of mood and athletic performance, but research does prove that a good mood improves academic performance. With a good mood you feel more confident and capable and are more mentally focused. (1) It's reasonable to think you could extend this to athletic and workout performance.
In general, positive emotions and a good mood are associated with better workouts, but some people respond well to bad moods. If you are particularly stressed or you feel angry or frustrated, these feelings can be motivating and push you to resolve the negative emotions with a tough workout.
For most people, it's a bad mood that leads to a bad workout or no workout at all. Depression is particularly detrimental to a good workout. Key symptoms of depression make it difficult to find the motivation to work out: apathy, lack of pleasure in normal activities, and fatigue. (1)
A small study of elite athletes with depression showed that there is a definite connection between this mental illness and lower performance. All the athletes reported worse performance during episodes of depression. They reported finding it difficult to work up to their usual potential when feeling low or depressed. (3)
While some may find stress a motivation to work out, it can also be fatiguing. If you have had a stressful day at work, your body has paid the price. You likely feel tired and unable to work out. Even if you do push through, your exercise performance is likely to be worse than usual.
Feeling too tired to work out? Here's how to use exercise to increase your energy levels.
A bad mood may put you off working out, but the good news is that mood and exercise exist in a positive cycle. The more you work out, the better your mood. There's no way around the occasional bad mood, stress, or depression, but exercise is a powerful tool in finding your way to feeling better.
Diet also plays an important role in mood. Check out these foods that help battle stress.
That exercise improves mood is a well-proven fact. Many studies have shown that regular physical activity boosts mood and even reduces symptoms and episodes of certain mental illnesses, namely depression. (4) There are several reasons for this effect:
The runner's high. This is not just for runners, but the name stuck. When you are physically active, the brain gets a release of endorphins, neurotransmitters that make you feel good. They relieve stress and pain.
Other neurotransmitters. Endorphins are largely credited with creating the runner's high, but other neurotransmitters play a role too. These include serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine.
Shifting focus. Exercise also helps boost mood by shifting your focus from negative feelings, like anxiety or stress, to immediate physical sensations. This distraction can be a powerful way to stop ruminating on things that make you feel bad. There is even evidence from research that this focus on physical sensations during a workout can improve symptoms of trauma disorders.
The social element. Many people exercise with others, and that can boost mood. Social support, laughing with friends, and the camaraderie of doing a tough workout together are great for mood.
Relaxed muscles. You know well that feeling of pleasant fatigue and loose muscles after a good workout. Releasing physical tension from your body helps relax your mood as well. It's a great stress relief.
Mood impacts workouts and exercising impacts mood. The cycle is an important one to harness for better mental health. It's easy to slack off on working out when you don't feel great, but use these pointers to keep going and to feed the positive cycle:
Focus on small, short workouts, even if it's just a walk around the block. Anything is better than nothing, and you may find that once you get started, you'll be ready to finish a longer workout.
Reduce the length or intensity of a planned workout if you're not feeling up to it. If you planned for a run but feel fatigued by depression, go for a walk.
Make working out a habit that's hard to break. It takes time to build a habit, but with consistency, it becomes automatic. Commit to a regular schedule for at least a month. Once it becomes a habit, it's easier to push past a bad mood and to work out anyway.
Work out with friends and outside whenever possible. The social contact and the time outside are both additional mood boosters. And, having friends counting on you to be there is an extra motivator.
You can't separate mental health from physical health or mood from exercise performance. But once you understand these connections, you can make better choices to be more physically fit and to improve your mood. As a trainer, use this information to help motivate your clients to stick with a workout routine.
If you love motivating people to work out and meet their goals, try the ISSA's Certified Personal Trainer - Self-Guided Study Program. It allows you to study at your own pace and to turn your passion into a career.
Thelwell, R., Lane, A.M., and Weston, N. (2007). Mood states, Self-Set Goals, Self-Efficacy and Performance in Academic Examinations. Personality and Individual Differences.42(3), 573-83. Retrieved from https://wlv.openrepository.com/bitstream/handle/2436/14480/Thelwell%20Lane%20Weston%20(2007)(5)%20.pdf?sequence=2
Mayo Clinic. (2018, February 3). Depression. Symptoms & Causes. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/depression/symptoms-causes/syc-20356007
Lebrun, F., MacNamara, A., Rodgers, S., and Collins D. (2018). Learning From Elite Athletes' Experience of Depression. Front. Psychol. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.02062. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6212506/
Robinson, L., Segal, J., and Smith, M. (2020, October) The Mental Health Benefits of Exercise. HelpGuide. Retrieved from https://www.helpguide.org/articles/healthy-living/the-mental-health-benefits-of-exercise.htm
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