Did you know exercise can revolutionize how you deal with stress on a daily basis? Dr. Eli Puterman, UBC Professor and award-winning researcher, 4-time Olympian Simon Whitfield and guest host Buzz Bishop discussed this and more in a recent Don’t Change Much podcast episode. Read on to discover how exercise affects your mood and how much you need to get results.

How exercise affects your mind

Buzz Bishop: What does exercise do for your mood?

Eli Puterman: The list is so long. In general, all the research highlights that moving our bodies will improve depression and anxiety levels and will improve how you go about your daily business.

One of the studies I did was with older adults who are providing care for a family member with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. What we found was people who had not worked out in a very long time—because most of their time was spent providing care to someone—6 months of exercising changed their depression levels, their stress levels, their anxiety, and of course, improved their health as well. 

We also tracked how they were experiencing their daily lives, and we found they had a greater sense of control on a daily basis. They ruminated less about negative things that were happening during their days. They also felt in a better mood throughout their days. 

Exercise can revolutionize how we’re dealing with stress on a daily basis…People feel less sad; they feel less anxious; they feel less stressed out…It’s mind-blowing to see the very large effects that exercise has on our minds.

How much exercise do you need?

Buzz Bishop: How much do you need to do to feel these benefits? Is it a walk around the block? Is it training for a 10km run?

Eli Puterman:  The Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology group recommends 150 minutes per week…That’s 30 minutes per day of moderate to vigorous activity. That all just gets kind of jumbly. So, what do people need? More than they were doing yesterday. That’s my typical way of prescribing it.

If you like light exercise, do light exercise. If you like moderate exercise, do moderate exercise…It has to be something people do that they find fun and something they want to sustain and do more often.

From a numbers perspective, people working out today have a reduced risk of developing depression over time. There is a reduced risk somewhere between 20% to 30% by working out today for your mental health in the future.

Buzz Bishop: That is so simple, do more than you did yesterday and find something that you like. That’s an easy way to do it.

Exercising as you age

Eli Puterman: When I lived in San Francisco, I would go trail running all the time. Every single weekend I’d be on the trails for somewhere between 10 to 15 miles with friends. As I’ve gotten older, because I’m nearing 50, I have evaluated what my body can do…and I have turned it into something much more internal. I want to not be sick for my last few years.

I want those years to be healthy, for my body to be healthy, as long as possible so that one day I wake up and I have two weeks left to live as opposed to waking up, and I’m slowly declining over a 10-year period.

Simon Whitfield: I like that. I refer to it as being coached by my 70-year-old self. It’s one of the reasons I didn’t go into Ironman; I wanted my knees to be around. I think about how my 70-year-old self has a right to a fit and healthy mind and body. It’s empathy for your future self.

Your future self is saying, hey me, down the line here, I would like to walk around too and not be in pain. So maybe you should put your arms above your head and keep your mobility and keep your movement. 

Being social can help you get active 

Buzz Bishop: The other part that I’ve heard you talk about, Simon, is the social aspect. I like to have beers and wings with the guys, but if you combine it with a men’s night golf tournament or a Peloton cycling group or you form a hiking group, then you’re getting both. Would you agree, Eli?

Eli Puterman: Definitely. For most people, moving their bodies with other people is what keeps them sustained…A new meta-analysis is about to come out, and a meta-analysis is a summary of research studies…Most studies ask how many minutes do you need? Should it be aerobic? Which kind should it be? 

This new study that’s coming out looked at different types of movement. They looked at dance, running, yoga; they looked at all the different kinds of studies…The biggest, most impactful way to reduce depression was dance, and it’s because dance is typically done with other people. It’s done in a group; it’s fun, there’s music. And that’s why we have to move our bodies in ways that are just enjoyable…

When we work out, we also get endocannabinoids, which are pretty much like CBD, released in our brain and in our bodies that calm us down and give us that runner’s high.

That’s what I thrive on, the high that I get when I’m really persisting and going intensely.  I find it to be so much fun. But everyone has their own way. I think being social and being with others it’s one of the best ways to make it happen.

Simon Whitfield: I play over 35 Masters B in the Vancouver Island soccer league, and I just love the theatre of sport. Just as an example, we made it all the way to the Tony Grover cup semifinal. And at the end of it all, what I really cared about was that we got to the pub afterwards and shared stories with the boys, and we showed up. That was actually what it was about. 

I had grown up with this reinforced attitude from our folks that it’s about the effort you put in, and it’s not about the results. That really frees you to pursue whatever it is that is your passion without this idea that it’s an outcome-based thing. 

It doesn’t matter how you look; just get started

Buzz Bishop: When you talk about dance, it can be awkward and embarrassing.

Eli Puterman:  One of the hardest things about doing things in groups and, let’s say, going to the gym or going to a dance class is that feeling you have with your body, the relationship that you have with your body.

Most people are not coming from a place of, I work out all the time, and I feel good about my body. Most people are coming from a place of I hate my body. I think people need to overcome the stress they feel about their body, how they feel in their clothing, and just be like, well, I’m doing this anyway. There’s a lot to overcome, but once you overcome it, it’s this flood of really great feelings.  

Another thing I’ll say is at the end of it, remember the feelings that you’re having, that high, that calmness, that social togetherness, because those memories, if you can favour them by remembering them and really immerse yourself in them, it will help you get active again the next time. 

To hear more from Simon Whitfield about his approach to exercise and his journey as an Olympian as well as from Dr. Eli Puterman, listen to the entire podcast now:

What type of exercise do you like to do with friends? Share with us in the comments below.