It seems ironic that while preparing for Yom Tov, when we are specifically commanded to be happy, we are in a constant state of stress and anxiety. Did I get everything needed while shopping? Did I remember to clean and look everywhere for Chametz? Did I bake and order enough Matzah? Is everything ready and prepared for the Seder? Did I make any mistakes on my guest list? And it goes on and on. Unfortunately, sometime we end up not taking advantage of this time of simcha. There are many ways to make your preparations easier, and your Chag more relaxing through practical planning (see Inyan Magazine Parshas Vayikra). But there is something else I can do that will always increase my levels of happiness any time of the year, and that is to exercise.
Now you might be thinking; where am I going to make time for exercise with so much to do? But again, with good planning, you can fit it into you day and you will be happy that you did. Because someone who is anxious, depressed, or stressed might be happy to know that in recent scientific studies, exercise is emerging as a potent healing tool.
Shirley Archer, MA, is a fitness instructor, who has spent much time researching this area of science. She has found that according to research studies, exercise may improve mental health in the following ways:
- By enhancing physiological health. “Physical activity benefits overall brain health by reducing peripheral risk factors for poor mental health—such as inflammation, diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease—and by increasing blood flow and associated delivery of nutrients and energy,” says Angela Clow, PhD, professor in the department of psychology at the University of Westminster, London, and co-editor of Physical Activity and Mental Health. Depression and other mental ailments are associated with low physical activity; being more physically active reduces mental illness risks (Cooney et al. 2013).
- By raising tolerance for emotional stress. Since exercise is stressful, regular exercise increases a person’s resilience toward other forms of physical and emotional stress. Having more physical and emotional strength—from consistent fitness training—seems to help people adapt better when tough situations occur (Otto & Smits 2011).
- By boosting self-efficacy. People who master a new skill such as exercise improve self-efficacy, which subsequently leads to higher self-esteem. High self-efficacy predicts well-being, while low self-esteem is associated with mental illness (Clow & Edmunds 2014).
- By fostering social contact. Social interactions improve mood. Exercise frequently occurs in a group setting. This support boosts mood (Cooney et al. 2013).
- By diverting negative thinking. People with depression or anxiety often get stuck in negative thought cycles. Exercise, especially when mindful, may be a diversion from self-rumination, focusing thoughts away from negative inner concerns toward engagement with the present and with pleasurable experiences (Otto & Smits 2011).
How Much Exercise?
How am I going to fit all of this in? Between cleaning, cooking, shopping, keeping my kids (out of school now) busy, and dealing with everything related to Pesach, it seems a very daunting undertaking to say I am going to exercise most days of the week. The good news is that taking even small exercise breaks will make you more efficient in your work! But as I said in my article in “Inyan”; “As far as exercising and activity goes—you may not be able to keep to your regular routine but the most important thing to remember is that it isn’t all or nothing. Whatever opportunity presents itself, take advantage of it. A 10 minute walk here and 15 minutes there all adds up. It only takes about 90 seconds to do some push-ups and 2 minutes to get through an abs routine. That isn’t a lot of time—don’t be fooled by the perception that you have no time at all.”
Current public health guidelines recommend 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity on most days of the week. In the U.S., this is identified as at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise per week. Studies suggest that the “dose” of exercise consistent with public health recommendations is sufficient to stimulate mental health benefits. “Aerobic physical activity at a dose roughly equivalent to the public health guidelines was found to be significantly more effective than a low dose [below public health guidelines] and a control condition in a 2005 study by Dunn and colleagues,” reports Sarah Edmunds, PhD, senior lecturer in exercise physiology at the University of Chichester, in England.
So why is exercise a major ingredient in happiness? Exercise causes the “feel good” hormones like serotonin and dopamine to increase their production in your brain. As a matter of fact, exercise can do a lot of what various anti-depression and anti-anxiety drugs do. When researching the effect of aerobic exercise on the brain, Simon Young, PhD, noted, “The effect of exercise on serotonin suggests that the exercise itself, not the rewards that stem from exercise, may be important.”
Scheduling in exercise before Pesach will make preparation time a happier time. Including exercise into your daily routine even during the busiest and most stressful time will “add hours to your day, days to your year and years to your life.”