A quick fix of sugary, fatty snacks or a cigarette may jump start your mood at a down moment. But as that pick-me-up quickly wears off, the unhealthy consequences remain. Instead of that harmful route, take another path – with a few minutes of walking.
A group of 16 addicted smokers and 18 regular snackers kept track of their moods and urges, while either taking regular 10-minute brisk walks during the study or remaining inactive. Researchers found that the short, brisk jaunts were enough to cream the cravings – and have a positive effect on mood. Those who walked were able to go longer between smokes or a snack, compared with those folks who remained inactive.
“Moderate exercise clearly reduced the urge for these unhealthy substances,” says study author Robert E. Thayer, Ph.D., from California State University, Long Beach, author of the book Biopsychology of Mood and Arousal (Oxford University Press). “When people look for something to pick up their moods, they may be able to substitute a walk for that cupcake or cigarette.”
Previous research has suggested a biochemical basis for this mood-boosting effect – that exercise stimulates production of chemicals in the brain that help make us feel better. Dr. Thayer, though, thinks there’s a lot more to it than that. “Exercise stimulates not just the brain but a whole number of different systems in the body, as well. It simultaneously acts upon our cardiovascular system, our glands, our breathing and more.”
Since people use all sorts of substances to manipulate their moods, this research points out healthier ways to go about it. “Of course, this is nothing new to someone who exercises regularly,” says Dr. Thayer. “They already know exercise is the magic elixir – decreasing appetite and improving one’s mood.” A short burst of exercise can do this, but long-term benefits of regular exercise itself – weight loss and a healthier heart – shouldn’t hurt in keeping your spirits high.
For example, Leslie Arnim is an expert on weight-loss plans. At the age of 42, she knows all the diets that don’t work. Several years ago, at 360 pounds, she joined Weight Watchers. (She had to lose 15 pounds before her weight would register on their scale.) The fat began to drop away, but frustration grew.
“I was craving foods and feeling deprived. I hated the idea of living the rest of my life with a scale in my pocket and a weekly diary to fill out!”
That’s when Leslie joined a walking club and began a walking habit that has taken her from a size 56 to a size 14 and kept her there.
“When I first started to walk, my knees and hips hurt terribly. I consulted my doctor, and he said it was probably because of my weight. The pain was not as dangerous as the fat. I just needed to keep at it, slowly.
“The pain would come and go. It seemed that every time I lost another 30 or 40 pounds, the aches would start again. My body was adapting to the changes brought about by my weight loss.
“The logbook that the walking club offers really helped me during those painful days. I would write down how far I walked and how I felt. Just keeping a record really improved my mood. It kept me in touch with my accomplishments.
“My knees are fine now, my hips no longer ache, and I have no sign of osteoarthritis.
“As far as my eating habits are concerned, I eat when I’m hungry. Some days I eat a little more than I need, sometimes a little less. It all seems to balance out. I did a lot of reading about eating and emotions, and I got some counseling on how I use food to soothe myself. I watch my emotions more than I watch my calories. It works for me.
“I lost my weight slowly (over a two-year period), and my face fared pretty well. But I still had lots of sagging skin on my belly and thighs. I used to look like one of those Chinese dogs, all wrinkly. But I haven’t had any cosmetic surgery, and my skin actually seems to be shrinking as I continue to walk and work out.
“My personal life and my professional life have really picked up since I lost weight. I try to walk in the evenings, but sometimes I get caught up in everything, and I slack off and the weight comes back a little. Then I fall back on the walking club. Having the log and reading the newsletters help inspire me and get me motivated again. I use lots of walking tapes to keep from being bored!
“Today my routine is varied. Some days I walk, some days I do aerobics – and some mornings I just lie in bed and smile at my muscles.”