Exercise and Your Mood

>> Sunday

WHEN I WAS A KID, my dad used a very effective method when my brother and I were fighting. He made us run a lap around the block, and it was a pretty big block! After becoming winded, we didn't have the inclination to argue any more. We felt more relaxed.

Exercise — especially exercise that gets you breathing hard — has a relaxing, mood-elevating effect. It feels as if you accumulate "stress particles" in your blood, which make you feel tense or nervous or on edge or stressed out or in a bad mood, and it feels like exercise burns off those particles as fuel, leaving your system clean.

I don't know much about cars, but I have heard that it's bad for a classic car to only be driven around town. Lots of slow driving makes the carburetor accumulate gunk. Once in awhile you need to get on the freeway and open it up, get that engine really hot and it burns out all the gunk.

When you get an adrenaline jolt — a worry that passes through your mind or something that makes you a little upset — adrenaline, cortisol, lactate and assorted chemicals are released into your blood stream. Including extra fatty acids. Exercise forces your body to burn all these stress byproducts. So rather than taking several hours or all day for this gunk to slowly get filtered out of your blood, exercise burns it all off in twenty minutes, leaving you feeling refreshed and relaxed. It also burns off the extra fatty acids cortisol has released into your blood stream, removing the health risk associated with triglycerides.

If you go too long or too hard, however, your body will start producing excessive stress hormones, defeating your purpose. You want to exercise so you're breathing hard, but still able to get plenty of air and keep going. And you want to stay at it long enough to have an effect (twenty to forty minutes) but not so long it taxes your body to the point of stress.

If you aren't accustomed to exercising, start slowly, learn how to do it, how much to rest in between, how to prevent injuries, and if you have any medical conditions, talk to a physician who knows something about exercise before you start.

For a method of improving your mood in the long run, regular aerobic exercise is one of the best.

Research has proven that twenty to forty minutes of aerobic exercise reliably reduces anxiety and improves mood, not just while you're doing it, but for hours afterwards.

In a study of rats, they had one group of rats exercise on an exercise wheel, and another group that didn't exercise. When the rats were exposed to stress, the exercising rats released measurably less norepinephrine into their brains. Norepinephrine is a hormone that produces adrenaline. In other words, the exercising rats had a healthier response to the stressful event.

At the University of Wisconsin, and then again in a Canadian study, exercise was shown to significantly decrease anxiety levels in the participants.

British researchers found that exercise not only improved the subjects' moods, but it improved their creative thinking (assessed using the Torrance test). Specifically, it significantly increased their flexibility score: They were able to come up with a greater variety of responses. This would ultimately lower anxiety because it is easier to solve your problems if you can come up with better solutions. In the study, the participants did twenty to twenty-five minutes of aerobic exercise. High-impact and low-impact both worked. When the researchers posed a problem, the people who had exercised thought up a greater range of strategies to solve it.

In another study at Baruch College, after twenty minutes of aerobic exercise, the participants' measures of creative problem-solving "increased significantly."

Researchers at Scripps College tested people between the ages of fifty-five and ninety-one years old for mental ability and physical activity. They compared sixty-two of them who were physically active (exercising regularly) with sixty-two people were relatively sedentary. The exercisers scored significantly better on all mental abilities: reasoning, vocabulary skills, reaction time, and memory.

In a study at Stanford University, healthy but sedentary adults who had trouble sleeping (taking longer than twenty-five minutes to fall asleep, for example, and sleeping an average of only six hours per night) were put on an exercise program for three months. By the end of the study, the exercisers were sleeping about forty-five minutes longer and falling asleep fifteen minutes faster, on average. The ones who didn't exercise hadn't improved.

It was once believed that the brain did not generate any new brain cells. But that has now been proven a false assumption. New brain cells form throughout your life. Trying to determine if anything can stimulate the brain to produce more brain cells, neurologists at the Salk Institute found that mice who exercised regularly on a spinning wheel had far more new brain cells after six weeks than the mice who hadn't been exercising.


What if you feel anxious and try to relax but it just makes you feel more agitated? And then you try to figure out what's bothering you and work on it, but that doesn't work either? When you seem agitated for no reason and nothing seems to work, consider the possibility that you need exercise.

A need for exercise can often pass for nervousness, restlessness, or impatience in the same way that being thirsty can often be mistaken as hunger. They are similar feelings or have similar sensations.

If you feel agitated, get some exercise. If you're feeling stiff or sore, and not up to exercising, try yoga or simple calisthenics. In other words, start to get in shape for exercising. I'm not talking about starting an "Exercise Program." Just do something light and see if you feel better. Do a few pushups, a few sit-ups, maybe some jumping jacks, and see how you feel. When you stretch, stretch very gently, more gently than you think will do any good, hold the position for fifteen to twenty seconds, and slowly release it. I recommend Judy Altar's book, Stretch and Strengthen for more about stretching.

Our bodies have clearly evolved to get quite a bit of activity, and the body rebels when we don't get enough. It's as much of a need as protein. We would feel bad and physically deteriorate if we didn't eat enough protein. Without exercise, we deteriorate and feel bad too. It's a need, not a bonus or a thing you might do if you like.

And, one final fact for you to consider: Psychologist Robert Dustman, one of the top researchers into the effect of aging on the brain, found that when people exercise, it keeps their brain producing more alpha brain waves. The alpha rhythm is associated with the ability to stay calm under pressure.

One of the all-time best methods for improving your mood is to exercise regularly.


Raise Your Mood By Relaxing Your Mind

>> Friday

Work and relaxation make music together. They are the up and the down, the yin and the yang, the rhythm of a good life.

Relaxation is good for you. Over the past 40 years, a tremendous amount of research has been done on relaxation and meditation, and the findings are truly amazing. Relaxation can lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels, help prevent heart disease, relieve or even prevent headaches, reduce pain, help control hypertension, help you sleep better and cure insomnia, alleviate panic attacks, improve your ability to come up with creative solutions to problems, increase your memory and ability to learn, improve your energy level, improve your self-esteem, reduce depression, improve your relationships and your health, and make you feel better in general.

But the kind of relaxation these folks studied was not what most of us mean when we say, “Yeah, I had a relaxing weekend.” They were studying a more concentrated, more profound form of relaxation, and you cannot get it watching TV.

The relaxation that produces those results requires you to relax your mind as well as your body.

One of the major players in that research is a medical doctor named Herbert Benson. He coined the term “relaxation response,” which is what he calls the natural, physical changes that take place when people meditate or relax profoundly. It’s the antidote and flip-side of the “fight-or-flight response” — the adrenaline-pumping reaction we get to dangerous, threatening or stressful situations.

Benson’s first experiments were on practitioners of TM (Transcendental Meditation), a form of “mantra” meditation. A mantra is a word or phrase repeated over and over to oneself. If this is done with a passive, non-forcing attitude, it changes your body. Heartbeat and metabolism slow down, the level of blood-lactate goes down, and the electrical pulsing of your brain slows down and becomes more rhythmic.

Benson found you can repeat other words besides the Indian mantra given to students of TM and it produces the same changes. Some forms of Yogic and Zen meditation also produce the same changes. So do Autogenic Training and Progressive Relaxation.

And when you relax like that for twenty minutes once or twice a day, all kinds of good things happen to your body. It’s extremely healthy and it feels good. It’s psychologically healthy. It’s the antidote to stress.

People who relax like that have a less intense reaction to stressful situations, and they recover from them faster than people who don’t. In other words, instead of a person’s heartbeat going from, say, 70 to 120 beats per minute during an argument and returning to 70 in an hour, it might go from 70 to only 100 beats per minute, and return to 70 in a half hour. That kind of change is healthy for your body and good for your relationships and gosh darn it, it’s just more fun! Stress is unpleasant.

When blood-lactate levels drop during relaxation, it stays down afterwards. This is one reason you feel so good afterwards. Blood-lactate has something to do with anxiety. When you measure the blood-lactate level of someone who feels anxious, you’ll find a lot of it. When you give someone a shot of lactate intravenously, they suddenly feel anxious. A certain percentage of people will have an immediate panic attack.

I could go on and on — the amount of research on this subject is extensive — but I’m going to give you a technique you can use to produce the relaxation response for yourself. It works very well, and it’s all you need.

But keep in mind there are hundreds of ways to produce the relaxation response, and if you don’t like this one, there are plenty more to choose from. This one is basic, however, and will produce the relaxation response we’re looking for. Here it is:

How to Relax

1. Get into a comfortable position and close your eyes. Take a few deep breaths. Relax.

2. Repeat some word or short phrase over and over to yourself.

3. When you notice yourself thinking about something else, gently start repeating your word or phrase again.

4. When you think your time is up, open your eyes and look at the clock. If you aren’t done yet, close your eyes and keep repeating.

Repeat your word or phrase fast or slow — whatever is best for you. You can repeat it to the rhythm of your breath or not — whatever you like.

The most important part of the process is Step 3. Biofeedback research has confirmed peoples’ personal experience: Trying doesn't help. People in biofeedback training who try to lower their blood pressure are the only ones who can’t do it. When you try to concentrate or try to relax, you won’t be able to. You need a passive, let-it-happen kind of attitude.

Your mind will often wander from your repeated word or phrase. No need to be bothered by that. Just bring your mind back to your repeated word or phrase. Over and over again.

It’s the process of doing this that’s good for you — not some end state or goal you reach.

Drifting off and noticing it and bringing your mind back to your repeated phrase is the process. And it’s this process that gives you all the benefits.

The attitude to have is a combination of persistence and acceptance. You persist in repeating your word and you accept it when your mind wanders, but you still persist in repeating your word again, while accepting that you wander off.

Most of the studies were done on people who did this kind of relaxation 15-20 minutes, once or twice a day, so that’s what I recommend. Put a clock where you can see it.

By the time the 15 or 20 minutes are over, you’re usually going to feel very relaxed, which is why I don’t recommend you set an alarm or buzzer to tell you your time is up. It can jar you, and that’s the opposite of the relaxation response.

Don’t expect anything. Sometimes you’ll feel deeply relaxed and almost blissful afterwards, sometimes you won’t. It’s a good session either way. Sometimes your mind will drift, sometimes it won’t. It’s a good session either way. And sometimes you’ll just fall asleep, and that just means you probably didn’t get enough sleep the night before. Even that’s okay: naps are good for you too.

Since you can pretty much repeat anything you want and it will work, I suggest you repeat something that has some meaning for you. The shorter, the better. Soft sounds — M’s and N’s and Sh’s — work better (are more relaxing) than hard sounds: K’s and P’s and Q’s.

During the relaxation response, your brainwaves slow down and become more steady and rhythmic. These are called “alpha” and “theta” brainwaves. There’s a good deal of evidence that we are more suggestible in those states than in our normal waking state (a “beta” brainwave pattern). Since you’re already in this suggestible state when you relax, you can (and might as well) make use of it by giving yourself suggestions.

The word or phrase you repeat can be a suggestion, and/or at the end, when you’re still relaxed with your eyes closed and your time is up, you can take a minute or two and give yourself some positive suggestions. For example: “When I open my eyes, I’ll feel refreshed and alert,” or, “Tonight I will have a dream that will give me an idea for a solution to a problem.”

You might as well take advantage of your suggestibility while you have it.

That’s all there is to it. It takes a little time, but it’s worth it. This is something that not only has long-term benefits, but also feels good in the short-term.

If you'd like to read more, I recommend Benson's book, The Relaxation Response.

But that's not all. Relaxing yourself makes the world a better place. You make a scientifically-verifiable difference to your family, friends, and the world at large by relaxing yourself regularly.

Experiments by psychologist Gary Schwartz showed that people who relax regularly have lower anxiety levels and fewer psychological problems.

Regular relaxation also improves your ability to pick up subtle perceptual cues and increases your empathy. And research by Ronald Riggio, Ph.D., proved what our everyday experience tells us: moods and attitudes are contagious.

Add these findings together and it means that if you relaxed regularly you would be better at resolving conflict with people; you’d be able to come together with people more harmoniously to reach compromises that are good for everyone. The world needs more people like that.

And since moods are contagious and since relaxing regularly puts you in a better mood and makes you more calm and relaxed, the people around you will also be in a better mood and be more calm and relaxed, which is good for them like it’s good for you.

You can help your children and your spouse and your friends and your co-workers be healthier, happier and have better relationships just by relaxing yourself.

Everything goes better with relaxation. Work. Relationships. Sex. Social interaction. Talking with children. Relaxation is good.

It’s an old Chinese saying that if you want to change the world, change your government, and if you want to change your government, change your family, and if you want to change your family, change yourself. You can make a step in that direction by relaxing.


Shift Your Thinking Creatively With One Simple Question

>> Thursday

YALE PSYCHOLOGIST Alan E. Kazdin did an experiment with kids suffering from "conduct disorder" — young people prone to violence, vandalism, truancy, and hostility.

Many things have been tried over the years but not much has been successful. How do you change a problem child into a healthy, happy, productive youngster? Theories abound. Results are rare.

Kazdin tried something unusual. He trained the troublemaking kids and their parents how to think up options for handling situations, and to come up with different ways of interpreting situations — other ways besides using hostility.

The result: Troublemaking was significantly reduced.

When the only response you have is hostility, that's what you do, regardless of whether it gets you the results you're after. Kazdin trained these people essentially to ask themselves, What else? The parents and their kids learned to say to themselves before they responded to something, "Okay, I could do that (what I've always done), but what else could I do?" He taught them to think of new options they hadn't thought of before.

And also he taught them to ask, "What else could it mean?" When someone bumped into them, for example, instead of immediately interpreting it as a hostile attack or a threat, they learned to ask themselves, "Okay, it might mean that, but what else could it mean?"

It seems a simple solution to a difficult problem. But it's harder than you'd think. Our minds are designed to streamline our mental processes. Asking "what else" makes the decision-process more complex. So it takes some deliberate effort to turn your mind to the task of coming up with alternative ideas.

This method is useful in many different ways. As I'm writing this, it's really cold outside, and even though a little while ago I had the heater turned up and my feet covered, my feet were still as cold as ice. Turning the heater up and covering my feet were obvious solutions. But, I asked myself, what else might work? What else could I do?

When you ask yourself a question, it awakens a part of your brain that answers questions. Ask a question, and your mind seems to search through all the things you've heard or know, and it often comes up with something.

I remembered my wife once telling me, "If your hands are cold, cover your head." She used to live in Lake Tahoe, and she learned a thing or two about dealing with cold weather. I grew up in Southern California and didn't know much about it.

So a little while ago I put a wool hat on. My feet aren't cold any more.

What else? It's such a valuable question. It's especially useful when you've been doing something a certain way for a long time. I'm always surprised when someone comes up with a new way to do something that's been done for a long time, because it makes me think, "Now why didn't I think of that?" Once you see the new way, it seems kind of obvious. But it took somebody asking "what else" to come up with it.

"Unaware of Mind's effect in patterning and enslaving their lives," wrote William Bartley III, "people live in a state of waking sleep, in a state of enchantment, of mesmerism, most of the time. Every day, in every way, they become more and more the way they have always been."

A couple of days ago I saw measuring spoons, but rather than having a separate spoon for teaspoons and tablespoons and halves and fourths, it was a single spoon with one end of the cupped part capable of sliding back and fourth, making the cup bigger or smaller, and there were lines on it for teaspoon and half teaspoon, etc. Why didn't I think of that? Because I didn't ask, "What else could measure teaspoons besides the measuring spoon I'm so familiar with?"


"What else?" is an especially practical question when what you usually do doesn't work very well. Besides getting miffed when a certain person makes certain kinds of remarks, what else could you do? You can do a certain task grudgingly, but how else could you do it? What other ways could you go about it? In what other ways could you think about it? When you interact with your teenager, and you both end up angry, ask yourself, "What else could I do?" What other approaches or responses can you think up besides what you normally do?

Here's a good rule: If what you're doing isn't working, do something else.

Of course, you don't want to go with something just because it's different, because in point of fact, the new idea might be worse.

Creativity is the process of thinking up new ideas and then rejecting most of them. But those are two processes, and the parts of your brains involved in each are different, so they can't really be done at the same time. In other words, when you're thinking up alternatives, don't judge the ideas for their merits at the same time. Let your mind go. Let it come up with crazy ideas, off the wall angles, impossible notions. This stretches your mind beyond the limits within which your thinking has been confined. Out of that loosened-up state of mind, a truly original idea and sometimes a perfect solution can suddenly become obvious. You just couldn't see it before because you were unknowingly confining your thinking about that subject within certain parameters.

Think up ideas, and keep thinking them up until you get a good one. And if it's important enough, and you have the time, keep thinking up ideas, keep asking "what else" and see if you can come up with an even better one.

The best way to characterize "thinking" is as a dialog. Consider thinking as a dialog with yourself. I know that if it is with yourself it's supposed to be called a monologue, but thinking isn't done very well as a monologue because there is nothing to provoke the thoughts further. A monologue is an expression of an already-decided thought. Dialog can create something new.

Have a thought and then criticize it and you have a dialog. Come up with an idea and then ask, "What else?" and you have dialog, and that's where good thinking happens.

"Well, my in-laws are coming over," says Pete to himself, "and they always drive me nuts. Maybe I'll just not say anything."

If Pete stops there, his monologue has created one idea. But this time he has a dialog with himself, and so he becomes more creative. "Yes, I could try that," he says to himself, "but what else might work?"

"What else might work for what? I guess I need a goal if I want to think up an idea to solve it. I need to know what I'm trying to accomplish."

"I want to feel happy even when they are here."

"Do I feel happy when I say nothing?"

"No. I've tried that before. It's not much fun. It's a little better than being annoyed, but I'm definitely not happy."

"So what else could I do?"

"Since I want to be happy, I should do what makes me happy. I really enjoy playing my new video game. Maybe I can enlist one of them to play with me."

"Good idea. But I'm not going to stop there. What else could I do?"

"I like talking about politics. I could make that my theme for the night. I could turn every conversation to the subject of politics."

"That's a good one. What else could I do?"

And so on. The more Pete asks, the more he'll get. Some of his ideas will be goofy or won't work very well, but thinking is like good photography: You take several rolls and get rid of almost all of them. You'll have maybe two or three good ones, but they were worth all the waste.

That's how creativity works. You generate lots of ideas and throw out most of them. But in generating so many, you have more to choose from, so your chances of getting a better one improve as the number of ideas increases. And the way to get many ideas is to keep asking, "What else?"



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