Yet more science to support the strong link between exercise and mental health.
It’s Sunday, and I feel horrible. I feel pretty bad most Sundays actually, and it’s not because my church ODs on guilt trips. Nor is it because my kids are at loose ends on Sundays and tend to spend them alternately fighting and whining (though that sure doesn’t help).
No, the real reason I hate Sundays is because by Sunday, it’s almost always been three solid days since I’ve worked out. And y’all — not working out makes me sad and grumpy. Not the first day … the first day I feel pretty okay, usually because I’m sore and tired from the day (or days) before. The second day I might miss the mood-boosting effects of a good sweat, but I rarely notice a negative effect on my mood.
By the third day, though, I’m feeling down and out. This is the day when working out is usually the last thing I want to do, even though I know it’s the thing I need the most. What I really want to do on Sundays is eat ice cream and get in some quality time with Netflix — neither of which actually make me feel better.
I’m not the only weirdo who’s emotionally attached to working out, though — according to Equinox, the third-day depression effect is a real thing among athletes, and it has a scientific explanation:
It’s possible that someone who works out regularly would experience a dip in mood after taking a few days off, says Faye Didymus, Ph.D., a sports psychologist at Leeds Beckett University in the UK who was not involved in the study.
Although no definitive conclusions can be drawn from these preliminary findings, it does make sense: Separate research shows regular exercise can act as an antidepressant by causing a release of dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins. “People who work out daily may become used to increased levels of these chemicals,” she says. So if you’re sidelined by a busy week at work or you’re nursing an injury, your brain may miss those feel-good neurotransmitters. After three days, the deficiency could catch up to you and your mood could suffer as a result.
See? I’m not addicted to exercise — I’m addicted to dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins! That’s better, right?
Really, we’re all addicted to the feel-good chemicals our brains create — the only thing that differs is our chosen method of increasing those levels. All things being equal, I’m comfortable with exercise as my happy place. It’s certainly a much better choice than brownies, my former happy place.
But on those Sundays when I can’t squeeze in a workout, there are still good options to boost those happy chemicals in my brain, sans chocolate. Even something as simple as taking a walk in the sunshine or playing outside with my kids is enough to get my blood pumping a little faster — and between that and the Vitamin D, I can always feel my mood lifting (at least a little).
So if you’re sidelined from exercise, don’t give in to despair — get creative! Find a way to get your heart rate up and get outside, even if it’s just for a few minutes at a time. You’ll feel better, plus you’ll be reminding yourself how great moving makes you feel. This way, when your body is ready to get back at it, your mind will be, too.