Exercising and mood enhancement – How does it work?

bluelights article

Physical activity constitutes a healthy way to improve mood as physical activity and psychotherapy show similar effectiveness in treating mood disorders. On the other hand depression and anxiety, the most common mood disorders are linked to the lack of exercise. However, this mechanism does not apply to all individuals.  Identification of underlying reasons for the differences in experiencing mood enhancement effect brought by physical activity is difficult with several mediating factors commonly proposed, namely group dynamics, and self-efficacy. Additionally, although some studies on animals provide evidences that physical activity changes the brain biochemistry through variations in serotonin and dopamine concentration, the changes of biochemistry are shown to be too small to fully explain the observed mood  enhancement.

Disorders related to mental health are predicted to be the first cause of death and disability by year 2030 worldwide and most of depression sufferers nowadays are women with women also recognized to be up to four times more likely to attempt suicide. In the UAE, occurrence of mental health problems is reported at an alarming level with depressive symptoms touching nearly a quarter of college students. Psychological challenges are greater for individuals exposed to large cultural diversity, hence women in UAE tend to experience stressors related to the clash of opposite cultures, leading to exposition to contradictory fashions like adopting unhealthy eating habits, limiting their energy expenses to the minimum while being compelled to conform to a slim body image, a phenomenon resulting in high prevalence of obesity, eating disorders and low moods. Additionally, physical activity – a recognized mean of keeping fit and fighting low mood – is quite restricted in the UAE due to a generally hot climate inducing low energy expenditure and due to cultural restrictions for women. Commonality of depression among women in UAE is partly due to the low level of physical activity which in turn is related to the low level of physical self-efficacy which is understood as the scope of beliefs about one’s own capabilities in physical performance.

Due to the mixed character of the UAE population, a low physical self-efficacy may be caused by diverse factors such as the age for women in general, the patriarchal social systems and the lack of social support and loneliness for expatriates. Elderly women naturally experience functional limitations which lead to lower physical self-efficacy. Strong social control is shown to significantly induce mood disorders as it affects women self-efficacy in general, and beliefs about physical performance in particular.

Physical activity is a natural positive affect stimulator but it usually happens only to those who have high level of self-efficacy. Those who do not believe in effectiveness of exercising may indeed not perceive any positive mood enhancement.

Therefore health promotion programs should implement interventions stimulating physical self-efficacy since individuals who would gain an increased level of believes would not only perform more physical activity but benefit more from its mood enhancing effect. Low level of physical self-efficacy may decrease physical activity, in turn leading to finding other ways of keeping slim like unhealthy starvations which indicate disturbances in emotive states. Therefore, reaching out to wellness counseling might be beneficial not only to physical health but also increased effect on mood delivered by exercising.

Wellness counseling addressing women self-efficacy is particularly relevant in the UAE, where the population is especially prompt to mood instability because of its unusual demographic structure and fast cultural changes as well as limitations in physical activity.