Autumn’s now truly upon us and if you’re one of those people who struggle with the lengthening nights and lack of light, then this post is for you.
Moderate aerobic exercise (e.g. a Street Fit® workout) is already known to be effective in fending off nasty physical diseases such as Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure (a big risk factor for stroke), but your body also comes with its own store of mood-lifting chemicals, and it appears that their release is also triggered by 10 to 30 minutes of vigorous exercise. Their scientific name is endogenous opioid peptides, but most of us know them by a different name: endorphins.
Why do we release endorphins?
Evolutionists have a theory about this. When we were hunter-gatherers, we often travelled huge distances in search of food. Continuous running in a hostile environment would inevitably lead to bone and joint problems. In response to the pain, some humans were able to release endorphins, the body’s natural analgesic (pain-killer), enabling them to continue moving and ultimately survive. Therefore, according to these experts, we have all evolved to produce these chemicals in response to heavy exercise.
Not just a pain-killer
As with all opioids, endorphins not only mask pain and increase pain tolerance; they also produce an intense feeling of wellbeing, known as euphoria. The effects are similar to that of the drug morphine (the word is a contraction of ‘endogenous morphine’), but it doesn’t come with the same dependency risk, since endorphins are very quickly broken down by enzymes in the blood. In addition to endorphins, exercise triggers the release of other feel-good chemicals such as adrenaline, serotonin and dopamine – and reduces levels of stress-causing cortisol.
Long term effects
As well as the immediate positive feelings, there is evidence that regular exercise benefits mental health in the long term. Older adults who have exercised throughout their lives report lower rates of depression and tend to recover more quickly from bouts of mild to moderate depression. The physical benefits of aerobic exercise will also help to improve self-esteem and mood: as weight is lost and muscles are toned, people become happier with their appearance and more in control of their lives. Endorphins even have a sedative effect, which is great for those who have trouble sleeping.
Although endorphins are produced after any vigorous exercise, whether running, cycling, dancing or swimming, working out in a group has the bonus of ongoing social contact. Being with other people can provide much needed social support when you’re feeling under the weather.
Please note, if you are worried about your low mood, you should seek immediate help from your GP.