If I hear one more thing about the mood-lifting effects of exercise, I may just throw a free weight through a window. Working out never gives me that feel-good chemical thrum. Do some people just not have endorphins? I decided to stop mopily, anxiously wondering why exercise doesn't make me less mopey and anxious, and consult the experts instead.
"Don't ever say endorphins in my presence," snorts Rodney Dishman, professor of exercise science at the University of Georgia. "You can't reduce the complex human brain to a handful of biochemicals. I feel better after exercising, but I've never felt euphoria. That's something you get with drugs or sex."
OK...what about the studies that call a workout nature's antidepressant? Dishman says yes, animal studies have shown that the brain has similar responses to both exercise and drugs. Studies on humans are more complicated, though. Our sadness might be lifted by moving, sure. It might also be eased by being in sunlight. Or by connecting with other people. "And you can't rule out the placebo effect," Dishman says. "If I'd already tried three kinds of drugs, I'd be desperate to see an improvement."
Some people just have a negative visceral reaction to the idea of exercise, says Panteleimon Ekkekakis, an associate professor of exercise psychology at Iowa State University. In his research, Ekkekakis has found that almost everyone responds positively to moderate activity. But when subjects reach a certain point of exertion, some feel just fine while others exhibit what's called a deteriorating affect. (I call it spirit-crushing despair.) "Part of that could be inherent, like genetics," Ekkekakis says, "and part could be acquired through experiences." Like, for instance, the humiliations I endured as a fat kid struggling through the annual Presidential Physical Fitness Test.
Huffing and puffing will be less miserable if I keep my eyes on the prize, says Emily Balcetis, an associate professor of psychology at New York University who has studied motivation, perception and exercise: "Swap the low-level thoughts like I hate sweating for high-level thoughts like I'm improving my cardiovascular health."
I recall the night my entire office went to a SoulCycle class. Once we started pedaling, my fat-kid angst fell away as I focused on the highest-level goal of all: not dying. At the end, I was exhilarated to still be breathing. I felt, literally, happy to be alive. Is that the exercise boost people are talking about? I admit I'd like to feel that way again.
Last week a coworker told me I should come to her rowing class (that's a thing now). My first impulse was to invent an excuse -- something serious and long-term, like an impending kidney donation. But when I thought of that SoulCycle class, I actually said I might join her. A small victory that left me feeling almost, well, euphoric.
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