Your Personal Trainer: Getting High on Exercise

By Olivia C. Rossi, RN, MSN,

Regular exercisers will tell you that they keep exercising because it makes them feel good.  We do know that exercise has a positive effect on mood.  The evidence can be found in brain chemistry or, more specifically, neuro-chemicals or transmitters that affect mood.  I guess we can think of it as “better living through chemistry.”  I want to focus on one of those neurotransmitters, not only in relation to exercise, but to our everyday lives, serotonin.

Serotonin elevates your mood, increases good feelings and lifts depression.  Exercise psychologist Andrea Dunn of the Cooper Institute in Dallas, Texas, says exercise is a viable treatment for depression.  “It affects the biology in the brain the same way that anti-depressive drugs do.” 

Researchers say that serotonin may be the key.  Depressed patients have low serotonin levels and exercise can boost those levels.  One of the leading classifications of anti-depressive medications is called SSRI or Serotonin Specific Reuptake Inhibitors.  Prozac, Paxil and Effexor are examples of SSRIs.  Simply stated, they make more serotonin available and you feel better.  But enough about chemistry and medications–on to life!

We live in a serotonin depleted world.  Why?  It’s because we have stopped doing some serotonin “boosting” activities.  It’s easier to answer the “Why?” by looking at some serotonin boosters, including exercise.  Let’s take a look at some proven ways to boost your serotonin levels . . .

1)  Laughter.  “Laughing increases relaxation, one of the major antidotes to stress.  Just as
depression has been shown to weaken the immune system, there is a growing body of
evidence that humor can strengthen it . . . A good belly laugh can also improve breathing and
help digestion (it’s great for the abs, too).”
(Adventist Health/Wellness Services)

2)  Light.  Expose yourself to one hour of real daylight everyday.

3)  Sleep.  A good night’s sleep, 7 – 9 hours per night with 4 hours uninterrupted

4)  Movement.  As little as 10 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity or exercise can
increase serotonin levels.

5)  A positive attitude . . . the opposite of stress.   Think about it, we’re bombarded with
negative news.  As Kay wrote a couple of weeks ago, turn it around, think
of the positive times.

6)  Bonding.  HUGS!  Talking in person, not just on the phone (but that’s okay, too)
. . . touch, sound, sight, smells, taste . . . Have lunch or coffee with a friend.

So, serotonin is good stuff and we don’t have to take a pill to increase it!  The increase in serotonin that is experienced with moderate intensity exercise is like the rise in serotonin that is experienced by being around good friends and family.  If you do fun things, things that you enjoy, including exercise at moderate intensity levels, we see a rise in serotonin levels.

A couple of years ago, I gave a talk on this at work.  To prepare for it, I sat down and had a little fun by making a list of my own serotonin boosters.  I came up with fifty without even thinking about it!  Let me tell you a few of them to make a point.  First and foremost on my list is “cats.”  Just seeing a cat makes me smile. I love them.  Some others . . . a train whistle, running, running on the beach, cycling on the beach, quiet time thinking . . .  Imagine the boost I get when I’m running in Lake Oswego, hear a train whistle over by the lake, have a cat walk up to me as I pass his house (I always stop to pet a willing cat), and all the while I’m thinking, often about what I’ll be writing about in my next article!  And when I’m running down Old River Road, I am surrounded by the beauty of the Willamette River, fall colors, and occasionally a glimpse of Mt. Hood.  The Pacific Northwest is replete with serotonin boosting scenery!  What a high that is!

So here’s a little homework for you.  Take some time to make a list of your own serotonin boosters. It’s all about the things that you like, the things that make you happy.  It’s you.  It’s how you decorate, what you like to wear, what makes you feel good.  Let’s face it, when we feel better about ourselves–healthier, happier and more fit–we are more likely to keep doing those things that are making us feel better.  Get high on life and get high on exercise.  Take a walk in the crisp fall air, kick the leaves, stop at a park and swing on a swing and, yes, pet a cat!  Happy exercising whatever you choose to do.

Yours in fitness,

Olivia Rossi, RN, MSN
Certified Clinical Exercise Specialist, ACSM
Certified Personal Trainer, ACSM

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