Posts Tagged ‘Dopamine’

How Walking for Happpiness Affects Your Mood

Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.

John Muir

Most walkers agree that walking makes them feel better. Whether a long-distance hiker, a power-walker, or just a recreational rambler, or even what Thoreau called a “saunterer”, all would say similar things about walking: “I feel relaxed when I walk”, “Walking makes me feel happier”, “When I get stressed, I walk”.

“Above all, do not lose your desire to walk. Every day I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it.”

Soren Kierkegaard

So it seems that many people believe that walking can have positive effects on your mood. But is that really so? Is there hard evidence, or just the firmly-held opinions of people who happen to like walking anyway? What effect does walking … or any exercise, for that matter … really have on your brain? To find out, we must learn a little bit about how the chemicals in your brain (neuro-chemicals) affect your mood.

There are four main brain chemicals that affect mood. They are:

  1. Serotonin,
  2. Adrenaline (also called Epinephrine),
  3. Dopamine,
  4. Endorphins.

Serotonin lifts your mood, increases your feelings of satisfaction (including being satiated–having had enough to eat), and lifts any depression. I’m sure that many people reading this will have experienced the mood-lift brought about by a rise in serotonin at some point. It is that satisfied feeling you may get after getting physically tired after doing something fairly strenuous but fun for some time, or eating a really good meal that you enjoyed. It is also that feeling of comfort we get from spending time with close friends or family we like. Serotonin levels are lowered by:

  • chronic stress or anxiety,
  • starvation or a low-carbohydrate diet,
  • inactivity

leaving you feeling depressed, irritable, moody, and exhausted. Funnily enough, there is a way of low-carb dieting that actually boosts serotonin, but I’ll leave that until a later post.

On the other hand, serotonin levels are strongly elevated after a long walk, even at moderate intensity levels.

Adrenaline (Epinephrine) is responsible for the “fight or flight” response that occurs when we get scared, or feel stressed. The effect adrenaline has on the body is to increase heart rate and blood pressure, elevate temperature, stimulate the sympathetic nervous system (used for voluntary muscle contraction), repress the parasympathetic nervous system (used for digestion, immune response, injury repair, and sleeping) and increase cortisol levels. In today’s fast-paced world, we all probably experience adrenaline on a daily basis. Racing to get things done, being late, driving in rush-hour traffic, juggling too many tasks at once, and starvation can all stimulate adrenaline. Adrenaline can become depleted with chronic stress or anxiety, leaving you feeling worn out, exhausted, mentally drained, and often depressed. Adrenaline is temporarily elevated when we exercise at very high intensity levels. Exercising at lower intensity levels, or performing intervals, (alternating intense exertion and rest) can lower adrenaline levels.

Dopamine is the neuro-chemical that is responsible for sleeping and waking cycles. While we may not recognise when dopamine is correctly balanced, we certainly know when our sleeping and waking cycles have been disrupted. Commonly described as “jet lag”, a disruption in our sleeping and waking cycle (our “circadian rhythm”) is caused by an imbalance in the dopamine level. Dopamine stores can become depleted with chronic stress, or anxiety, and intense trauma, starvation or low carbohydrate diets. Dopamine can also be affected by serotonin levels, becoming depleted when serotonin is depleted. Likewise, dopamine levels can be elevated by elevating the serotonin level. Therefore, performing long-duration exercise at moderate intensity can elevate dopamine levels.

Endorphins are the neuro-chemicals that act as the body’s “natural painkillers”. Endorphins are responsible for the decrease in physical pain with exercise. Many runners will attest to the fact that chronic pains seem less noticeable during, and immediately after a run. Endorphins are also responsible for the ability to disregard, or perhaps not even notice pain, when engaged in a physical activity. This is why we can run, or play without noticing blisters on our feet, until after the run, or game. Endorphins can allow us to perform activities that would otherwise be stopped by pain. Endorphins are also partly responsible for the “runner’s high” that is often reported by devout runners; walkers can experience it, too. The endorphin response to exercise increases with frequency of the exercise. Interestingly, substance and alcohol abuse can deplete the endorphin response to exercise. However, all people, regardless of history, will experience a rise in endorphin levels with exercise of any kind.

Exercise, of any kind will have a positive effect on all four of our neuro-chemicals, but does the type of exercise we perform matter? To some extent, the answer is yes.

When we perform exercise at very high intensity levels, adrenaline levels tend to become elevated, more so than with low to moderate intensity level exercise. Power lifting, weight training, sprinting, interval training, plyometrics (explosive muscle training ) and ballistic training can all create a rise in adrenaline levels. Likewise any sport that relies more on explosive, start and stop efforts than a consistent moderate intensity effort, would create a significant rise in adrenaline levels. This means that sports that utilise more fast-twitch muscle fibres than slow-twitch muscle fibres will have a noticeable impact on the adrenaline levels. When we recruit fast twitch muscle fibres, we create the same fight or flight response that would be created in response to real trauma. This response generates very high levels of adrenaline.

While explosive forms of exercise and sports generate a rise in adrenaline, low to moderate intensity exercise tends to create a rise in serotonin. Long-distance walking, running, cycling, hiking, swimming, yoga, and sports that rely more on endurance than power create a rise in serotonin levels. Therefore, any sport or exercise that recruits more slow-twitch muscle fibres (such as walking) than fast twitch muscle fibres, will increase serotonin levels. When we recruit slow-twitch muscle fibres, the purpose is to be able to perform moderate intensity exercise for a long time. While the chemical connection between moderate-intensity exercise and increased levels of serotonin in not fully understood, perhaps a long walk creates an increase in positive emotional states, which would positively affect serotonin levels. The rise in serotonin that is experienced with moderate intensity exercise, seems to be similar in nature to the rise in serotonin that is experienced when one is surrounded by good friends and family. In general, when one engages in positive experiences, including exercise at low moderate intensity levels, we see a rise in serotonin levels.

When serotonin levels rise, dopamine levels tend to rise as well. This means that walking, or engaging in sports at low to moderate intensity levels will have a positive impact on dopamine levels. We have all experienced the good night’s rest that is typical following a good workout. However, we have probably also experienced the disrupted sleep that can follow intense exercise performed too late. It seems then that low to moderate intensity exercise has a positive effect on dopamine levels, while exercise that is very intense can lower dopamine levels, causing a disruption in sleep. In fact, one of the symptoms of overtraining is a disruption in the athlete’s sleep pattern, so walk for a good night’s sleep.

While dopamine and serotonin are more strongly elevated by low to moderate intensity exercise, than with intense exercise, the endorphin response to exercise seems to be non-selective. We experience a rise in endorphins regardless of the type, or intensity of the exercise. However, the endorphin response to exercise becomes stronger with exercise frequency. It seems that the more exercise we perform, the more endorphins we produce with each exercise bout. While natural painkillers are never a bad thing, we do want to be careful of overtraining, which will disrupt sleep patterns, putting us at a greater risk of injury, so follow our walking training plan.

While we can begin to predict the neurochemical response to walking, does this mean that we can control mood through walking? Many researchers would answer yes. While, perhaps we may not thoroughly understand all of the mechanisms at play, we can say that different intensities of exercise create different chemical responses in the body. More than anything, however, we do know, beyond any doubt, that walking has a very positive effect on mood. So walking can creating the mood you want. Happy walking; go Walk For Happiness!

This post is based on an article by Claire Dorotik, with her permission

Weight Loss and Exercise with Walking for Happiness

Barry at Nordic Walk 2 Fitness in Newcastle published a really interesting article in his blog about other ways that exercise can help with weight loss, and it ties in nicely with our Walking for Happiness philosophy.

Here’s a quote from their site:

” … vigorous aerobic exercise has an appetite suppression effect over the short term. In 2008 , scientists at Loughborough University in the UK found that two hormones which affected appetite were affected by vigourous aerobic exercise , namely ghrelin and peptide YY. Ghrelin stimulates appetite whilst peptide YY suppresses appetite. Following exercise ghrelin was down regulated whilst peptide YY was up regulated – the overall effect being to suppress appetite – the effect lasted a few hours.

Conclusion to all this is that dietary control is the major factor in weight loss and is assisted by exercise. Relying on exercise alone will not lead to significant weight reduction. Further suuport for this may be in the article entitled The Exercise Myth by Dr John Baradi , a well know US-based Fitness Professional and , in my view , a very honest man !”

Of course, Nordic Walking burns more calories than ordinary walking, improves your mood by increasing serotonin, dopamine and endorphins, and develops lean muscle mass, which, in turn, burns more calories.

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