The benefits of a happy body

Year of Happy two linesWelcome to week 3 of The Year of Happy‘s month on the body. The Year of Happy is a free online course in the science of happiness. Not signed up yet? Enter your email here and you’ll get a weekly dose of readings and videos to further your happiness education. 

Most people these days would agree that a healthy diet and exercise are “good for you” – but how? Not all foods and exercises affect our bodies and minds the same way. Read on to find out what benefits to expect from different health choices.

The benefits of a healthy diet

In an environment where Coke, Twinkies, and mystery meat are plentiful, researchers are discovering the benefits of whole foods. People who eat fruits and vegetables, fish, and natural meats have a lower risk of depression. In one study, 78% of kids with ADHD who converted to a whole-food diet saw improvements in their behavior.

Another well-studied regime is the Mediterranean diet, with seaside delicacies like fresh fish, olive oil, fruit and vegetables, and red wine. Over time, the Mediterranean diet has been shown to reduce the risk of Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, cancer, and death from heart disease. Even just a 10-day switch to southern Europe-inspired eating can make us feel more energetic, vigorous, and contented.

Digging a bit deeper, one of the key components of the Mediterranean diet is fish – and the omega-3s it contains. In a Harvard study of more than 54,000 women, those eating the most omega-3s and the least omega-6s (polyunsaturated fatty acids that compete with omega-3s) were the least likely to be depressed. Omega-3s can even reduce symptoms of depression in pregnant women. One 10-year study of nearly 5,000 women found that the ones who ate the most oleic acid – found in olive oil – were least likely to have depressed mood. And in another study, fish oil treated depression just as well as Prozac.

Omega-3s also affect our thinking. Researchers gave blood tests to nearly 300 people, and those with higher levels of a particular omega-3 scored better on tests of reasoning, working memory, and vocabulary. In fact, eating a serving of fish once per week could slow down the yearly cognitive decline that goes along with aging by 10%, and upping that to three weekly meals with fish oil can halve our risk of developing dementia.

But what about the fun stuff? We talked about some of the benefits of dark chocolate and coffee last week, but there’s more. Dark chocolate lowers blood pressure and blood sugar, and it improves the way our cells process sugar. Eating 100 grams per day – that’s a whole bar! – reduces elderly people’s risk of cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and mortality. (I can only assume it was very dark chocolate.) Men who eat chocolate rather than reaching for cakes or candies have higher psychological and emotional well-being, and cancer patients who eat half a bar for three days in a row can reduce their anxiety and depression. Even babies born to chocolate-eating mothers have a sunnier disposition at six months, perhaps because chocolate improves Mommy’s mood. 

Coffee, meanwhile, is also good for health and mood. Drinking three to four cups of instant or filtered coffee per day reduces our risk of coronary heart disease, Parkinson’s, kidney stones, gallstones, colorectal cancer, and liver cirrhosis. Women can cut their depression risk by 20% by drinking coffee, up to a jittery six cups per day.

The benefits of exercise and physical activity

If we can get over that initial hump, getting active has a cascade of benefits that affect our mental and physical health. Physical activity and exercise boost our positive emotions and body image and give us a sense of self-efficacy, mastery, self-esteem, flow, and purpose. With each training session, exercisers gain mastery and self-confidence as they begin to feel in control of their bodies and their health. Many studies have linked more physical activity to less depression, and part of the reason is because physically active people become more social, too.

In 1999, a Finnish study of more than 3,400 people found that regular exercisers – who break a sweat two or three times a week – were less depressed, angry, stressed, and distrustful than their more sedentary peers. In another study, Chilean high school students who started working out three times a week for 90 minutes reduced their anxiety by 14%. Exercise can also help reduce depression in patients who aren’t responding to antidepressants.

We all know about the long-term health benefits of physical activity and exercise – lower risk of obesity, cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and certain cancers – but there are short-term benefits, too. An Australian study of nearly 900 women ages 45-60 found that the ones exercising two or more times per week were less tense and tired, got fewer headaches, and felt less tightness and pressure in the body. Employees at the Northern Gas Company who participated in a corporate exercise program took 80% fewer six days, and Coca-Cola employees who joined the corporate fitness program had $500 lower health care claims.

Although it can be hard to get moving with a five-pound baby in your belly, research is now suggesting that exercise is beneficial for pregnant women. For example, it can reduce nausea, fatigue, joint and muscle pain, and fat accumulation. In one study, women who exercised three times a week had better moods, lost more weight, and felt more confident and satisfied after six weeks of being a mother. Exercise is also beneficial for other times of hormonal change, like menstruation and menopause.

As we begin to understand the science of exercise, some psychiatrists are prescribing it to their patients along with medications. A 10-week study in Germany found that exercise worked just as well as clomipramine for panic disorder, for example. Rehab patients who enroll in an exercise program stick it out longer, and a short session of exercise can reduce cravings for alcohol or cigarettes.

John J. Ratey, author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, actually recommends scheduling exercise right before our hardest tasks because of the boost in attention, thinking, and memory we get from it. In a 2007 study in Germany, people were able to learn vocabulary words 20% faster after they had exercised.

This was part of the idea behind “Zero Hero PE” in Chicago’s Naperville High, where students were invited to a special exercise program before school. Not only did active students increase their grades by 17% compared to those who opted out, but they improved their grades even more when they scheduled hard classes first thing in the morning. This model spread to other schools, where it spurred impressive benefits in academic performance and reductions in violence. Zero Hero isn’t the only format that works, of course. Short activity breaks sprinkled throughout the day and long PE sessions can also help students improve their grades.

In this humorous TED talk, education advisor Ken Robinson makes the case for schools that embrace the body – lest we squander the potential of the next generation:

Does your workplace have a gym? In a 2004 UK study, employees who took the time to make use of company gyms were more productive, less stressed, and less fatigued in the afternoon.

But perhaps the biggest performance benefits of exercise accrue to the elderly, who are contending with the cognitive wear-and-tear of old age. In a huge study of nearly 19,000 women ages 70-81, those who were most active – walking for 12 hours or running for 4 hours per week – were 20% less likely to show cognitive impairment on memory and intelligence tests than women exercising less than an hour per week. Meanwhile, physically active women post-menopause have faster mental processing and better executive function.

Exercise can also ward off dementia, in both men and women. 65- to 79-year-olds with a longstanding habit of twice-weekly exercise were half as likely to have dementia, as were Parkinson’s patients who exercised twice a week.

In this TEDx talk, neuroscientist Wendy Suzuki explains her study of exercise and memory – which used her own students as guinea pigs.

The benefits of specific exercises

Deadlifting 100-pound sacs is a far cry from taking a leisurely walk in the park; in other words, all exercise isn’t created equal. Although it’s still early days, scientists are starting to compare the effects of cardio, weight training, yoga, and more.

Aerobic exercise. We know that aerobic exercise helps reduce anxiety, for example. Part of the reason might be that cardio feels a lot like anxiety – sweaty palms, racing heart, fast breathing – without the negative connotations of fear or threat. Getting used to those feelings can help sufferers who feel alarmed at the first twinges of anxiety.

Running. Running, in particular, strengthens the bones and the brain. After 35 minutes of moderate-intensity running (at 60-70% of our maximum heart rate), people become more cognitively flexible and more creative in a problem-solving task. Women who run for 30 minutes three times a week are less depressed, irritable, and pessimistic and more concentrated and interested in the world. In older adults, walking three times a week improves memory and literally increases the volume of their prefrontal cortex.

One of the most famous exercise studies, coming out of Duke University in 1999, compared exercise to Zoloft for depression patients. Over 16 weeks, participants were split into three groups: exercise (running or jogging three times a week for 30 minutes), exercise and Zoloft, or Zoloft alone. Everyone became less depressed, although Zoloft was a bit quicker at improving mood. But the astounding results came six months later: 30% of the exercisers were still depressed, compared to 50-55% of the other groups. Even the people who were combining exercise and Zoloft were worse off! Researchers believed that this combo group didn’t get the same boost in self-confidence, because they could write off their progress as due to the medication and not their effortful exercise regime.

Walking. For pregnant women, walking along could have lots of benefits. A small 2007 study found that pregnant women who walked or swam were in better moods, while another study linked brisk walking to a 75% lower risk of diabetes during pregnancy.

For people suffering from panic attacks, a mere 30 minutes on the treadmill is better at staving off another episode than resting quietly. And joining a walking program could help bipolar patients reduce their depression and anxiety.

Biking. Own a stationary bike? A small German study found that depressed people who cycle for 30 minutes improve their scores on tests of executive function. Another study found that Parkinson’s medication was more effective when patients spent 40 minutes on a stationary bike before taking it.

A separate German study somehow convinced 50 pregnant women to ride stationary bikes during labor and rate their pain levels (because giving birth isn’t complicated enough already!). And would you believe it? Biking helped with the pain of contractions.

Weight lifting. When you lift weights, you are also lifting your mood, shifting your depression, and building confidence. In one study, strength training just once a week for two months had happiness benefits that lasted at least a year, even after stopping. Upping the frequency to twice a week (for six months) has been shown to reverse genetic aging. And pumping iron three times a week (for three months) will buy you lower anxiety and a more positive mood.

This CNN segment reports on a 77-year-old woman who started exercising in earnest at age 56. When her sister and workout partner died, she turned to bodybuilding to help her recover.

Yoga. As yogis will attest, time on the mat is good for body and soul. A review of yoga studies found that there is evidence for yoga’s power to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression and improve mindfulness and sleep quality.

For example, university employees who did Dru Yoga for an hour per week (for six weeks) ended up in better moods, more energetic, more purposeful, more satisfied with life, and more confident during stress. Even a short yoga session can immediately reduce blood pressure and respiration rate, and make us feel less depressed, tense, confused, anxious, and angry.

Compared to gym exercisers, yogis tend to have less joint pain, fewer headaches, less stress, and more mindfulness. Yoga is a viable exercise for older adults, who can use it to increase muscle strength and range of motion.

There are many types of yoga, from intense to meditative, but what they all have in common is teaching body awareness, acceptance, and deliberate action. Perhaps that’s why yoga is so beneficial for people coping with mental and physical illness. Yoga has shown various psychological and physical benefits for everyone from schizophrenia patients to trauma survivors to cancer patients.

Martial arts. Finally, tai chi is a Chinese martial art that involves deliberate movement and light contact (if any). Research shows that people who do tai chi can strengthen their muscles, learn balance, improve their bone health, lower their blood pressure, strengthen their immune system, and sleep better. Tai chi practitioners have higher life satisfaction, positive emotions, and body image, and less depression and distress. In one study, boys with ADHD who practiced martial arts twice a week started doing more homework, coming into class more prepared, breaking fewer rules, and getting better grades.

So why do you want to exercise more and eat better? We’ve seen a host of benefits, ranging from better mood and less depression to lower disease risk, from more self-confidence to higher productivity. Getting clarity about your motivation – and reminding yourself of it when it comes time to head to the gym or go grocery shopping – can make all the difference.

Sources and further reading:

Go back to Week 2: How to cultivate a happy body

Move on to Week 4: When it’s hard to be healthy, try this

See the whole Year of Happy curriculum

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