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Brighten your day with exercise

Scott left the house for his early morning run in a nasty mood. He grumbled about the weather, complained about all the trash he had to take out, and snapped at his daughter who was running late for school. Forty-five minutes and several miles of running later, he returned home in a noticeably better frame of mind. What caused this transformation?

While it's generally recognized that exercise has an effect on mood, it's not completely understood how this works. Research suggests that exercise raises levels of certain neurotransmitters, which are mood-changing chemicals in the brain. It also may reduce levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. Other bodily reactions triggered by exercise include reduction in muscle tension and an increase in body temperature. Any or all of these physical changes may bring about a more calm and positive state of mind.

A study in Scotland of 19,000 men and women found even 20 minutes of physical activity a week provided some reduction in emotional distress, but those who were physically active every day had the lowest risks of physical and mental ill health.

Can exercise help you even if you are one of the 19 million U.S. adults who suffer from clinical depression each year, or one of the 40 million suffering from an anxiety disorder? You may have clinical depression, rather than the ordinary "blues," if your low mood, loss of interest and irritability last for more than a couple of weeks. Examples of anxiety disorders are phobias, post traumatic stress disorder and generalized anxiety (unrealistic or excessive worry lasting at least six months).

While psychotherapy and medication are the two most common treatments for clinical depression and anxiety, exercise can be an effective complement to these therapies. In addition to its potentially beneficial changes to your brain chemistry, an exercise program allows you to: set and meet achievable goals, be distracted from your problems and connect with others socially.

If you're so depressed it's hard to change out of your pajamas, much less exercise, talk with your therapist about incorporating exercise into your treatment. If you decide to go ahead, it's okay to start slowly, even if that means ten minutes of exercise at home with a workout DVD. It's also helpful to focus on activities you enjoy. If gardening, walking or a game of pick-up basketball are more to your liking than an aerobics class, get out of your house and do it, even if you don't find it as enjoyable initially as you once did. Make a habit of it and the benefits are likely to follow.

Sue Welker, RN, fitness specialist at Edward Health & Fitness Centers, contributed to this article.


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