The Magic Medicine that Everyone Should Try

You can lift your mood and improve your health without a prescription.

By Jeffrey Rossman, Ph.D.

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Health Benefits of ExerciseHave you noticed that most of the TV commercials you see during the evening news these days are for drugs? “Trouble sleeping? Can’t turn your mind off? Anxious? Depressed? We have the drug for you!” And the ad always ends with a rapid list of side effects and cautions, usually spoken too rapidly to hear or scrolled too fast to read.

I’d like to see a different kind of commercial: “Would you like to sleep better, feel calmer, enhance your mood, boost your energy? Dozens of recent studies have shown that aerobic exercise consistently produces these benefits. And exercise has been found to produce the following positive side effects: Improved concentration and memory, weight loss, lower cholesterol, reduced blood pressure, increased immune function, enhanced sexual performance, and improved self-esteem. Because it enhances feelings of pleasure and well-being, exercise may be habit-forming. Ask your doctor if exercise is right for you.”

Although we haven’t seen that commercial yet, you’ve probably heard that information. It’s out there. And yet, 80 percent of Americans don’t get the 30 minutes of aerobic exercise most days of the week as recommended by the National Institutes of Health, the American College of Sports Medicine, and the American Heart Association. You know the reasons: We’re too busy, too tired, too sore, the weather is bad, it’s too hard to get to the gym. If we could reap the benefits of exercise by simply taking a pill, everyone would take it. Although it takes time, energy, and determination to exercise, virtually everyone who manages to work out feels better afterward. Studies show that regular exercisers are healthier, happier, and more productive than they were before they started exercising, and will do anything to avoid missing their workouts.

How does exercise boost your mood? Psychologically, it takes your mind off of worries and concerns while you’re doing it and delivers a feeling of accomplishment and enhanced self-esteem when you’re done. Physiologically, exercise releases a whole cascade of mood-elevating processes in your brain, effects that any pharmaceutical company in the world would pay big bucks to duplicate. As soon as you start exercising, levels of mood-enhancing neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine are increased. More than 40 different types of endorphins—stress hormones that calm the brain and relieve stress—are also released during strenuous exercise. Over time, exercise actually stimulates the birth of new brain cells and promotes their linkage to existing brain cell networks. By stimulating that new growth, exercise helps counteract the corrosive effect of stress and helps the brain to continually re-wire itself and adapt to changing life circumstances.

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