Mood-Boosting Workout

If you're struggling to make exercise work for you right now, you're not the only one. The constraints of physical distancing—and overall stress—may be making it tough to fit your old approach to the new situation. Especially since exercise is so important to your mental well-being.

This article will provide you with an overview of how exercise impacts the brain and includes a mood-boosting approach to working out that can be custom-tailored to any fitness level.

What makes exercise so powerful for mental health?

  • Exercise lights up the prefrontal cortex (PFC)—the executive centre of your brain—and allows it to communicate with the amygdala, the scaredy-cat portion of your brain. This cross-talk or “vertical integration” allows you to examine fears through a more analytical lens and parse real threats from perceived threats.

    For example, if the guy ahead of you just sits there when the light turns green, you may find your blood pressure skyrocket. You will experience similar sensations if a falcon swoops down from the heavens and tries to pluck out your eyes. The difference is that one of these is a real physical threat—the other is just an inconvenience. 
  • Exercise changes brain chemistry by increasing the availability of anti-anxiety-neurochemicals—like serotonin, GABA, BDNF, and endocannabinoids. 
  • Exercise is on even footing with both psychotherapy and pharmacotherapy. It can—and should— be used together with both. 
  • Exercise is free and accessible. And if we’re comparing the laundry list of potential side-effects of exercise to common medications, having sore quads seems like a pretty minor tradeoff.

“I tell people that going for a run is like taking a little bit of Prozac and a little bit or Ritalin because, like the drugs, exercise elevates these neurotransmitters.”

—John J Ratey

  • Exercise provides you with an opportunity to practice emotional self-regulation.
  • Exercise provides you with an opportunity to practice interoception—the ability to perceive what is going on internally. More practically, if you can’t feel what’s going on inside of you, you can take steps to address it—which makes it a fundamental skill for self-regulation in general.
  • When you practice emotional regulation during exercise-induced stress, your synapses begin to make stronger connections—what neuroscientists call binding. 
  • Exercise is your ability to experience stress on your terms. You can dial it up or dial it down. This gives you tremendous power to reshape your experience of stress while increasing your mental and physical resiliency. 

Putting it all together in practice

  • Choose a form of repeated activity that you enjoy—or are interested in exploring more deeply. This will be something that you’re already competent in. It could be walking, running, jumping rope, squatting, marching in place, or kettlebell swinging.
  •  Perform a short interval (roughly 10-30 seconds). This will elevate your heart rate and breathing noticeably—either during or immediately afterwards. 
  • Immediately practice some kind of breathing control. In this approach, we’ll employ Equal Breathing (also known as “Box Breathing,” and sama vritti pranayama). For this version, you’ll inhale, retain, exhale, and retain your breath—with equal time spent on each phase. Your goal is to reach five seconds per phase—for a total of 20 seconds for a full breath cycle. However, you may need to begin with 1 to 2-second phases (totalling 4-8 seconds per cycle).

    The duration is less important than consistency and control. As you recover, gently increase the length of each phase until you are able to calmly complete at least 4-8 breath cycles. In this case, a full breath cycle will take 20 seconds. Therefore, a full recovery phase will take at least 80-160 seconds.
  • Repeat this cycle for anywhere from 5 to 60 minutes.

Customizing things

Level 1
If this is all brand new to you—or you’re returning to exercise after a prolonged period—start by simply practicing Equal Breathing and your exercise of choice separately—for periods of anywhere from 5 to 30 minutes each. For example, you may practice Equal Breathing for 10 minutes first thing in the morning and then work up to 20 minutes of jogging three times per week.

You will begin enjoying immediate benefits from this and can progress to the next level whenever you feel ready. 

Level 2
Continue your more vigorous aerobic exercise. At least 60 minutes per week is recommended. At a separate time, practice pairing light movement with Equal Breathing. For example, you may want to walk or march in place. Start with whatever phase duration you need to maintain consistent movement—for example, 2 seconds per phase for a total of 8 seconds per cycle. Keep things at Level 2 until you're able to work up to a 20-second breath cycle during light movement.

Level 3
Perform an interval of up to 30 seconds of your exercise of choice and immediately transition into Equal Breathing—shortening the count as needed initially and then working up to a full five count while standing or shaking your muscles loose.

For example, you might jump rope for bouts of 20 seconds and then perform Equal Breathing with a 1 second per phase rhythm (for a total of 4 seconds per cycle) until you can expand it out to a 5-second per phase rhythm for a 20-second breath cycle. Again, you'll want to calmly complete 4-8 phases before returning to your interval.

Level 4
Perform up to 30 seconds of your exercise of choice and immediately transition into a lower-intensity exercise that allows you to continue moving AND practice Equal Breathing. For example, you might alternate between jogging and walking. As per the previous phases, you'll want shorten your phases as needed, expand them to five seconds, and then calmly complete 4-8 phases before performing your interval.

A note on intensity and discomfort

There will be an inverse relationship between effort and duration. The harder you work, the shorter your intervals will be in order to maintain breath control. That might be as little as a few seconds. 

Whether you’re practicing longer, less intense intervals or shorter, more intense intervals, your aerobic system is going to be working the entire time—even during rest.

One of the primary features of this approach is that you will experience some level of physical and/or emotional discomfort—primarily when you're on the exhale or "bottom hold" of the breath cycle. That is ok. Your goal is to gently explore your limits and learn to relax when there. You have control over your breath and can change the rules any time you need to.

Don't be in a hurry to progress things. Take incremental steps. Observe your reactions and emotions. Progress slowly.

This approach is an integrated mind-body drill. It is not a substitute for more vigorous exercise but is complementary to it.

Final words

Consult your physician and any other relevant member of your healthcare team to ensure that this is a safe means of exercise for you.

This approach is just one of many that can be used to reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression—and boost mood and focus. Your ability to calmly navigate the more stressful aspects of this process is what helps you connect brain to body and neocortex to amygdala. There's magic in those connections.

Like any skill, practice is the greatest predictor of progress. Give yourself some time to build your skills and fine-tune the approach to work ideally for you.