science of us

Exercise Is Mood Sorcery

Photo: Oleh Slobodeniuk/Getty Images

Outside magazine has a useful reminder this week that exercise is basically magic for our brains and moods.

People have always known that moving around transforms the way we feel, and increasingly science has been backing this up with data: Exercise can ease depression and anxiety and stimulate creativity, for instance (perhaps by enhancing circulation and brain-cell regeneration). Plus in the right circumstances it will braid your hair and do your taxes. It also demonstrably reduces overall moods of anger, if not acute emotions of anger — moods being broader and more long-lasting than emotions, emotions being more fleeting and pronounced than moods.

A new study, published in the journal of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, found that a 30-minute “moderate-to-vigorous” bike ride alleviated participants’ angry moods — but not, later, their angry emotions (as triggered by showing them upsetting photographs). So, sort of an odd study, but always a good reminder that moving through the world transforms the way we feel about it. A similar study in 2007 revealed a similar finding, as Outside’s Alex Hutchinson points out. He links to a New York Times report about that earlier study, and I liked this comment from a reader, “Janelle”:

How much more research do we need to know exercise is good for us?! Exercise reduces cardiovascular risk, assists in controlling weight, reduces stress, improves mental health, and now can also reduce anger. Yet despite all the evidence, most Americans don’t (won’t?) even go for a 20 minute walk every day. What does this say about human behavior? Many doctors don’t even exercise on a regular basis. Despite the best evidence, old habits die hard.

It’s a good question. Why is it such a slog? Why do we hate things that are good? I would prefer to write this blog post about exercise, for instance, than walk around somewhere for 20 minutes. Maybe the word “exercise” needs a rebranding. Last weekend I went for an hour-long walk in the park, and when I came back it felt like I’d flipped an emotional mattress in my brain. It’s ridiculous that I’ve been alive for so many years and this is always a revelation. I propose “enfreshening.”

Exercise Is Mood Sorcery