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Fitness: There’s More Than One Way to Sweat Out the Blues

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The more exercise and mood information we have, the more accurate the fitness prescription and the more effective the outcome.

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Managing mental health through exercise has long been recommended by medical professionals, with the American Psychological Association reporting that 43% of Americans use exercise as a strategy to reduce stress. Yet despite the general consensus that physical activity has a positive impact on mental health, the exact prescription remains elusive. Is a 20-minute jog around the neighborhood more effective in alleviating anxiety than a 20-minute walk around the block? Does sweat have to be rolling off your forehead for you to experience the full stimulating effects of a workout?

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The more information we have about exercise and mood, the more accurate the exercise prescription and the more effective the outcome. And since most people find it difficult to fit a workout into a day already full of work and family commitments, the more we know about the type, duration and intensity of exercise needed to relieve anxiety, depression and stress, the better.

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To further our knowledge of exercise and mental health, a team of researchers from the universities of Pepperdine and San Francisco compared the results of two of the most popular forms of exercise – continuous aerobic conditioning and interval training – as well as the less physically demanding activity of coloring. The idea was not only to see how the two types of exercise compared to more sedentary strategies for managing mental health, but also whether trendy interval training was more or less effective in mitigating stress. , anxiety, and depression than traditional steady-state aerobic exercise like running. , cycling and swimming.

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“Understanding the breadth of options one has to positively impact their anxiety and mood states is of particular importance given the recent pandemic (COVID-19), which has resulted in the closure of many recreation centers and other barriers to physical activity, as well as increased levels of anxiety, depression and stress,” the researchers said.

Study subjects included 12 women and 15 men who were in good physical condition and had no diagnosed mental health conditions. Each performed a series of three activities: a 20-minute continuous exercise session on the treadmill with a three-minute warm-up and two-minute cool-down, a 20-minute interval training session on the treadmill (one minute work interval followed by one minute recovery, repeated 10 times) with the same warm-up and recovery time, and 25 minutes of sedentary coloring. Exercise intensity for both workouts was personalized based on a series of fitness tests, with all study subjects maintaining 75% of their maximal aerobic capacity for the exercise period at the end of the day. steady state and 95 and 55% VO2 max for high levels and low intensity intervals.

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Not surprisingly, mood and vigor improved after both types of exercise—a finding consistent with previous studies—with very little difference in effectiveness between steady-state exercise and interval training. The same couldn’t be said for 25 Minutes of Coloring, which failed to improve mood and energy levels. But when it came to reducing anxiety, anger, confusion, fatigue and tension, exercise and coloring were equally effective, which is good news for people who need to manage their anxiety but who cannot make it to the gym.

Another interesting finding from the study is that interval and steady-state training achieved the same results in terms of enjoyment – ​​a surprise given that interval training requires an uncomfortably high level of intensity. But closer examination of the data found that pleasure peaked five to 20 minutes after interval training — a phenomenon not seen after steady-state workouts, but noted in previous studies. . This finding led the researchers to speculate that “although perceived pleasure may be important for adherence to exercise, pleasure from the activity may not be necessary to experience the psychological benefits of exercise.”

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The idea that you don’t have to like exercise to benefit from its mood-enhancing effects suggests that even if you have a rest day at the gym, you’ll likely leave feeling better than when you arrived. And since interval training and steady-state exercise improve mood to the same degree, you can choose to push your limits or stay at a more comfortable intensity.

Even though coloring matched exercise in its ability to alleviate anxiety, anger, confusion, fatigue and tension, the study is a reminder that sweating is more bang for your buck than sedentary activities. Beyond the well-known physical benefits, active people are generally less depressed than inactive people. And it has been observed that people who were active but stopped going to the gym have more mental health issues than those who stick to their exercise routine.

So while regular exercise has been hailed for its ability to improve physical health, it’s also worth focusing on its short- and long-term mental health benefits. With fewer Canadians reporting excellent or very good mental health during the pandemic, it’s something to act on the next time life throws lemons at you.

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