Weekly roundup: How exercise affects your mood and work

Whether you can’t go a day without a workout or you can’t imagine why anyone would exercise by choice, there’s a way for you to reap the benefits of moving your body. Research shows both vigorous and mild forms of exercise offer emotional and cognitive benefits.

Mild exercise can improve your mood and help you think more clearly

There’s good news for those of us who hate the thought of vigorous exercise: even mild movement, such as walking around your office or home, can provide a mood boost.

A study of over 10,000 people used an Android app to track how much participants moved and to survey participants throughout the day about their mood. The study found those who moved more in general also tended to be happier overall. But the researchers also found participants reported being most happy when they had been active—even mildly—in the 15 minutes prior to a mood survey.

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One of the research’s authors, Dr Jason Rentfrow, says that while the data showed happy people were generally more active, “our analyses also indicated that periods of physical activity led to increased positive mood, regardless of individuals’ baseline happiness.”

… in order to be happier, you don’t have to go out and run a marathon – all you’ve really got to do is periodically engage in slight physical activity throughout the day.Dr Jason Rentfrow

If you’re looking for a little more movement than a trip to the office kitchen, mild exercise may still be your best bet.

Researchers have found intense exercise can make it hard to think about anything besides your burning muscles. And while that might be exactly what you want from a workout sometimes, if you’re looking for a cognitive boost, moderate-intensity exercise is key:

When you have high exertion — meaning you are running flat-out in a race — you’re not going to be able to solve problems or think as well as when you are engaged in moderate exercise.

… there is a sweet spot, which is a moderate level of intensity.

Vigorous exercise can improve your memory and your ability to learn

Many studies have proven a link between aerobic exercise and mental clarity. One study, for example, compared participants who ran regularly and those who didn’t, finding the runners showed stronger connections in brain areas related to decision-making, planning, and controlling attention.

It’s possible these kind of cognitive benefits come from the birth of brand new neurons in the brain, caused by aerobic exercise. Animal studies have proven vigorous aerobic exercise can cause the birth of new neurons in the brain’s hippocampus, which is associated with learning and memory.

While scientists have recently discovered that new neurons are created in our brains throughout our lives, aerobic exercise is the only know way so far of triggering that effect:

If you are exercising so that you sweat — about 30 to 40 minutes — new brain cells are being born. And it just happens to be in that memory area.Karen Postal, president of the American Academy of Clinical Neuropsychology

Exercise can help you process emotions more effectively

To test the effects of exercise on processing unpleasant emotions, one study split participants into two groups and asked them to either stretch or run for 30 minutes.

After stretching or running, participants watched a short tear-jerker clip from a film to induce feelings of sadness. Then they completed a survey about their emotional state.

Fifteen minutes later, participants completed the emotion survey again, but this time the participants who’d spent their 30 minutes running were found to have recovered from their sad feelings better than those who’d simply stretched. The exercise seemed to help with processing sad feelings and returning to a normal emotional state.

The study also found that those in the running group who felt the worst after watching the sad film also recovered the most by the time they took the second survey.

Whether working up a sweat with vigorous aerobic exercise is your thing, or you prefer the idea of a gentle walk around your desk, there are emotional and cognitive benefits to almost any form of movement. And if you manage to get outside for your exercise, you could pick up a boost in productivity from being in nature, as well.

So get moving and reap the rewards.

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Belle B. Cooper

Belle is an iOS developer, writer, and co-founder of Melbourne-based software company Hello Code. She writes about productivity, lifehacks, and finding ways to do more meaningful work.