How to boost your brain for a better mood and less stress
In these times it is worth sticking with whatever exercise you can consistently do in the circumstances, as exercising regularly is linked to better eating habits. Conversely, a lack of social contact is linked to poorer eating habits and, over time, poor health outcomes.
A 2019 study published in the International Journal of Obesity, looked at 2,680 young adults who were not exercising regularly or dieting. Scientists found that after exercising for several weeks, formerly sedentary study participants were more likely to choose foods like lean meats, fruits and vegetables, while preferences for fried foods, sodas and other unhealthy options decreased.
Longer durations of exercise were associated with decreased preferences of red and processed meats, fried foods, soda, bread, and pasta as well as increased preferences for milk and cereal. Higher exercise intensity was associated with a higher intake of fruits, vegetables, and low-fat foods as well as a lower intake of fried foods and soda.
Participants were instructed not to change their diets in any significant way, but it happened anyway. In this study, the researchers stated that the mechanisms that caused exercise to lead to better eating habits were not clearly known.
However, there are some quite clear associations between exercise and better life choices, which I will explain below.
Several other studies also have shown a relationship between the intensity of exercise and the amount of appetite-regulating hormones in the body. The latest, published on March 21, 2020, in Nutrients, found that nine weeks of HIIT "promoted a spontaneous modulation of food choices and regulation of dietary intake in young normal-weight subjects aged 21–24".
The association between exercise and better life choices
The brain benefits of regular aerobic exercise are multiple and substantial, including:
In addition, every intense bout of exercise also causes significant improvement in:
Needless to say, in the current pandemic and the stress of #StayAtHome the benefits of acquiring an enhanced mood, and decreased stress levels can hardly be overstated. In less stressful times - what we used to call "normal" times - I believe that the exercise-induced states of a better mood and less stress are significant contributors to better eating choices.
Think of the converse. If we are feeling down or stressed, we tend to snack, and to snack too often and on unheathly foods. On the other hand, when we feel good we want to take better care of ourselves.
There are physiological reasons why this makes logical sense
The enhanced mood and decreased stress effects are driven by an exercise-induced increase in multiple neurotransmitters, neuromodulators, and neurotrophins e.g. dopamine and Interleukin (IL) 6. IL6 is produced in response to infections and tissue injuries, and it also hovers in production in the case of chronic inflammation such as excess fat - obesity.
However, aside from responding to fat cells by remaining chronically elevated, IL6 has a different role in the metabolism of exercise (rather than inflammation).
In this latter role IL6 works as an energy-management molecule in the muscle and works systemically to enhance insulin sensitivity, lipolysis, and fat oxidation. After intense exercise, there is an exponential increase in IL-6 (up to 100 times that of resting levels), with return to normal in 2 hours.
In simplified terms, intense exercise helps your body burn your fat and fuel more effectively and at the same time makes you feel in a better mood and decreases your stress levels. It makes you look better, and feel better - mentally and physically.
For those reasons I believe that you also make better food choices, and thus set yourself up in a virtuous circle of continuing to feel better, look better, and wanting to exercise more.
This releases the active, healthy person inside you - no matter what your age.
How to start
If you are currently exercising less than 30 minutes a week then consider starting 30-minute aerobic workouts three times a week. Best that they are of moderate intensity if you are not fit. Try walking at a pace just less than brisk - that is, about 80 steps per minute.
Keep this up for 4 or 5 weeks before going to the next step.
As you get fitter - which you can judge by the gradual decrease in your breathing effort - then step up to a brisk walk - 120+ steps per minute. Increase your duration to at least 30 minutes each time, and better if it is 40 minutes. Also, if you can, increase the frequency from three days a week to every day - along with a 5-minute warmup and a 5-minute cool-down top help avoid injuries.
By doing this you will get those neurotransmitters buzzing and feed your good feelings, which will help you make great food choices - without stress.
No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or another qualified clinician. Disclaimer.
Since I was diagnosed at 50 with Type 2 diabetes I've been learning how to do bone-building fitness training which lowers my age. You can too. It's your choice. Walter