Today, extreme programs like CrossFit are all the rage ... and will certainly make you strong and sculpted.

But I'd rather discover what works for most of us ... without costly gyms and seriously strenuous, possibly injurious, exercise.

In my series on exercise, I've explored how much exercise – and which kinds – deliver the best results in the shortest time.

In Part 1, I looked at the link between exercise and longevity, and in Part 2 I investigated the dreaded "sitting disease.”

Here, in Part 3, I'm looking into the connection between exercise and mood ... and what really motivates us to get off the couch.

How much exercise do you need for a good mood?
As I've gotten older, my reasons for exercise have certainly changed.

I worry less about how I look in a swimsuit, and more about the less obvious benefits of exercise.

And, after a recent injury, I was made only too aware of the connection for me between my workouts and my mood.

Not only was I feeling discouraged about not being able to hit the treadmill or take an aerobics class, but the longer I was kept from a good workout, the more my mood took a nosedive.

So I wondered, is it just me, or do we need a good work out for a good mood?

The science on exercise and mood
Depression looks different for everyone – general signs include feeling low for a period of time, lack of energy, and a loss of interest in everyday activities.

Michelle Lee is a writer and avid home chef, with 20 years of experience focusing on healthy lifestyle, diet and the home kitchen
When not playing around with words, she loves to cook, spend time with her two children, play cribbage with her husband, and tackle The New York Times crossword puzzle.
While many of us are prone to the occasional low mood, that doesn't put us into the category of clinical depression, but it may keep us from enjoying our day-to-day as much as we'd like.

There are a variety of treatments for what's called "clinical” (serious) depression, which can be very helpful, if not crucial in such cases.

And for many but not all sufferers, serious depression can be improved or managed with the help of physical activity.

Although you may feel a lack of energy that makes you reluctant to get out there and move, studies show that exercise can boost your mood and give you energy.

Two recent reviews of the evidence found that exercise does have antidepressant and anti-anxiety effects in most people.

Not only do people with diagnosed depression or anxiety seem to experience an improvement in symptoms, but people with sub-clinical depression – periodic low mood – see improvements as well.

According to a team at the Medical University of South Carolina, "Exercise compares favorably to antidepressant medications as a first-line treatment for mild to moderate depression and has also been shown to improve depressive symptoms when used as an adjunct to medications."

And they found that exercise helps ease anxiety as well: "While not as extensively studied, exercise has been shown to be an effective and cost-efficient treatment alternative for a variety of anxiety disorders."

Feeling low? Take a walk NOW for quick benefits
While most research looks at the effects of a long-term exercise program on mood, two interesting studies I found focused on the lift you can get from a single workout.

These simple studies had the same premise: have a control group do nothing, and have a study group exercise once or twice, then compare their pre-exercise mood to their post-exercise mood.

While the studies were conducted almost a decade apart, the results were similar.

Even 24 hours after their single workout, study participants reported a decrease in depressive symptoms and an improved mood.

While they only exercised once, the results were immediate, showing a significant improvement in mood after one to two exercise sessions.

The results suggest that if you're feeling low and having trouble getting out of a funk, even a single moderate workout can provide nearly instantaneous benefits that last for at least a day or so (hopefully until your next walk, jog, or fitness class).

The best motivation for exercise? Happier moods beat weight loss or fitness
Professor Michelle Segar, Ph.D, MPH, is the author of author of No Sweat: How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring You a Lifetime of Fitness.

Among other academic research teams, her group at the University of Michigan has explored what motivates people to start and continue an exercise routine.

Surprisingly, they've found that most people are unmoved (pardon the pun) by the usual motives for exercise: to prevent or control disease, lose weight, or sculpt their body.

Prescribing exercise as if it were medicine doesn't work to get most people to walk, run, or work out and keep doing it.

In fact, people whose goals are weight loss and better health tend to spend the least amount of time exercising.

Instead, things that enhance daily life – extra energy, sunnier mood, less stress, and exercising along with friends or family – appear far more motivating.

As Dr. Segar told The New York Times, "I like to think of physical activity as a way to revitalize and renew ourselves, as fuel to better enjoy and succeed at what matters most.”

Back on track
I am happy to report that my knee has finally healed and I'm easing back into a more normal, regular workout routine, and the mental health benefits have been almost immediate.

What have you learned about how exercise affects your mood?

I'd love to hear from you – please email me and let me know what you do to keep your mood positive!

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