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EXERCISE, MOOD, AND PSYCHOLOGICAL WELL-BEING: A Practitioner's Guide to Theory, Research, and Application

Kilpatrick, Marcus W. Ph.D.

doi: 10.1249/FIT.0b013e31818450e8
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LEARNING OBJECTIVES • Learn about the psychology of mood and implications related to exercise participation.

• Develop an appreciation for theory and measurement of mood within the context of exercise.

Regular exercise has the capacity to improve mood and adherence, but attention must be paid to key aspects of the exercise experience. Find out more in this article.

Marcus W. Kilpatrick, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of Exercise Science at the University of South Florida in the School of Physical Education and Exercise Science. His education is in the areas of nutrition, kinesiology, and health education. His research interests include physical activity motivation, perceived exertion, and mood. He is ACSM Health/Fitness Instructor® and ACSM Exercise Specialist® certified.

The position that a physically active lifestyle results in improved physical health has been demonstrated by numerous research studies. Research findings indicate that physical activity is associated with reduced risk of ailments such as heart disease, osteoporosis, diabetes, stroke, and cancer (1). This research provides the basis for physical activity recommendations from organizations such as the American College of Sports Medicine, the Office of the Surgeon General, and the Department of Health and Human Services (2-4). Although recommendations extolling the virtues of regular physical activity on physical health are widely disseminated and generally accepted, knowledge regarding the impact of physical activity on mental health is less pervasive. The extent to which individuals recognize the psychological benefits of exercise often is limited to the perspective that "exercise makes you feel good." This anecdotal perspective is supported by a growing scientific base indicating that participation in exercise has both acute and chronic psychological benefits (5). The challenge for the health and fitness professional is to facilitate exercise experiences that "feel good" and lead to desirable physical outcomes. Developing a greater knowledge base related to the psychological aspects of exercise provides one method of meeting this growing challenge. Although there is a general consensus that exercise makes people "feel better," researchers have debated how constructs related to this improved feeling state should be defined. This debate has led to the development of various terms and theoretical frameworks that has progressed our understanding of this important construct.

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EXERCISE AND MOOD TERMINOLOGY

The report of feeling better in response to participating in exercise is somewhat vague but ultimately represents a complex combination of improved mood, increased self-confidence, and decreased stress (6). The focus here will be on the mood-related aspects of well-being including mood, emotions, and affect. These concepts are all related and can be differentiated based on their cause, intensity, duration, and the level of thought associated with each. Differences may seem superficial, but a clear understanding of each variable provides fitness professionals with a better understanding of how to assist their clients in their efforts to maintain an active lifestyle. Emotions are intense and short-lived responses to some specific event that requires significant thought. Feelings of anger and elation are examples of emotions and typically arise immediately in response to some specific event. Moods are similar to emotions and also require thought but tend to have nonspecific causes, are less intense, and persist for longer periods. Happiness and sadness are common moods that arise from repeated experiences of an emotion and often represent the feeling state that remains after an emotion has been processed and filtered. This feeling state is a combination of our response to emotions and aspects of core personality. Affect differs from emotions and moods because it is basic, requires little thought, and often cannot be consciously traced to an identifiable cause. Affect implies a very broad and primitive feeling state that can be as simple as feeling "good" or "bad." The primitive unprocessed aspect of affect is somewhat reflexive in nature and is based on instincts. As such, affective states can be elicited and altered through various mechanisms, including exercise (7). Although some of the differentiations are subtle, having an improved sense of the terminology can benefit the work of health and fitness professionals. A brief summary of these terms is provided in Table 1.

TABLE 1

TABLE 1

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A CONCEPTUAL MODEL OF MOOD

One commonly used framework in the study of mood is the circumplex model (8), which is composed of two dimensions: valence and arousal. Valence represents the level of positive or negative feelings. Arousal represents the intensity of the feeling from low to high. The dimensions are independent of each other but can be combined to create a useful method of considering mood within exercise. A graphical representation of the model is provided in the Figure and depicts how the distribution of positive/negative feelings and low/high arousal can be used to describe mood state. Feeling positive with varying levels of arousal creates very different mood states. Specifically, positive feelings combined with low arousal are linked to perceptions of tranquility, whereas positive feelings and high arousal are associated with joy. Importantly, selection of the exercise experience (modality, intensity, etc.) can impact the development of mood states and may relate to future behavior and adherence.

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MEASUREMENT OF MOOD

Assessment of mood can be accomplished using a variety of measures. Some allow for assessment before, during, and after exercise, whereas others are too lengthy for use during exercise and can only be used to assess mood before and after exercise. Two single-item scales used to measure mood before, during, and after exercise are the Feeling Scale (FS) (9) and the Felt Arousal Scale (FAS) (10). The FS measures how positive or negative mood is, and the FAS measures whether one perceives low or high arousal level. This combination of scales allows for assessment of the circumplex model. A scale commonly used before and after exercise is the Profile of Mood States (POMS) (11). The original version of the POMS contains numerous items and requires that the respondent rate the extent to which indicators of mood such as tension, vigor, depression, fatigue, anger, and confusion describe their current state. Although the full-length version of the POMS used in research has more than 60 items, abbreviated versions can be used by practitioners. Table 2 provides additional information about each scale that can be administered orally or by way of paper and pencil, depending on the preference of the professional and/or client. Professionals interested in more formal assessments of mood state should read the original reference sources for more detailed information (9-11). However, each tool can be used informally to gather information about client responses to exercise. For example, one or more of the scales might be administered during or after a new workout routine to determine effectiveness in promoting a positive mood. Likewise, the scales could be administered periodically over several weeks or months to assess how mood responses might be altered through training. These responses can then be used to make necessary changes in a fitness program in ways that are described in a later section. The kind of information provided by these scales can be used along side of other variables (self-efficacy, motivation, goals, etc.) to monitor client progress and assist the client in achieving their health and fitness objectives over the long haul.

TABLE 2

TABLE 2

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IMPACT OF EXERCISE ON MOOD

Experienced exercisers seem to know how to structure their exercise program to produce positive mood states. These individuals likely discovered how to create enjoyable and positive exercise sessions through trial and error or because they received good counsel from a health and fitness professional. New exercisers, however, often lack the skill or intuition necessary to make optimal choices for exercise, and poor choices may limit adherence. Guidance in the selection of exercise frequency, intensity, duration, and mode for these individuals is especially important.

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Frequency

Although very little research has directly addressed the issue of optimal frequency for improved mood state, there is a general consensus that a modest frequency of two to three times per week is appropriate to help develop a fitness base before increasing intensity and duration. This is relevant to mood considerations because developing a base of fitness may reduce perceptions of discomfort typical in individuals for whom exercise is a novel task. Experience with exercise and exertion allows the new exerciser to learn that acute physiological responses to exercise such as elevated heart rate, sweating, and heavy breathing are appropriate and part of fitness development. However, high frequencies are not necessary as evidenced by research demonstrating mood-related benefits on the very first day of exercise (12).

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Intensity

The original conceptions related to mood and exercise intensity suggested that moderate intensities were superior to both light and vigorous. This perspective was based on the idea that some minimum intensity was necessary to elicit positive mood changes and that higher intensities were perhaps psychologically harmful. However, recent research has improved our understanding and indicates that improvements in mood can and do result from very low intensity activities such as slow walking (13). These findings support and extend the knowledge base that exercise does not need to be intense to provide benefit. Additionally, research has determined that these positive changes in mood continue as exercise intensity increases until the ventilatory and/or lactate threshold is reached. This range of intensity where metabolism shifts from primarily aerobic to a combination of aerobic and anaerobic seems to be an important determinant of mood responses to exercise (14). More specifically, mood responses during exercise above this threshold are almost uniformly negative, whereas positive mood states are common for lower and moderate intensities. Interestingly, mood states measured after the completion of exercise are similarly positive regardless of intensity (7). These findings have been observed repeatedly and suggest that vigorous exercise may be less desirable than lower intensities because negative mood states during exercise may override positive mood states after exercise.

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Duration

Typical exercise recommendations suggest a minimum duration of 20 to 30 minutes to achieve health benefits. Research demonstrates that this duration of exercise is in fact productive in regulating mood states and generally does so without increasing the risk of overuse injuries (12). Recent research, however, has concluded that durations that are much shorter or longer also can result in positive mood changes. More specifically, durations as little as 10 minutes can increase reports of calmness and relaxation (13). This finding provides further grounds for recommending very small doses of exercise to sedentary clients who might be resistant to prescriptions of exercise that involve greater durations. Collectively, the research suggests that exercise duration is not an important variable in mood states.

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Mode

It is clear that a variety of exercise modes can positively impact mood state and that no one modality is superior to others. Walking, jogging, cycling, swimming, and many other traditional modes of aerobic exercise can all improve mood state, whereas exercise such as Pilates and yoga provide similar benefits. One mode that may be less likely to enhance mood is high-intensity resistance training (15). Resistance exercise tends to produce increased muscle tension that can increase perceptions of worry and anxiety. However, it is likely that other benefits from resistance exercise related to self-esteem and body image may counteract any potential decrements in mood. Regardless, choosing less-intense muscular endurance and circuit-type programs may minimize the possibilities of less desirable mood-related outcomes, especially for novice exercisers.

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PRACTICAL RECOMMENDATIONS

One method of evaluating the effectiveness of conceptual models, theories, and measurement tools is their impact on behavior and adherence. All of the sections above provide the framework for the set of recommendations that follow. These recommendations provide practical applications that health and fitness professionals can use in daily practice. Some recommendations are linked directly to scientific evidence, and others are based on scientific theory. Additionally, many of the recommendations are simply variations on standard practice, whereas others are more innovative. A summary of these recommendations is provided in Table 3.

TABLE 3

TABLE 3

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Limit Competition

The presence of competition with others can undermine mood responses during exercise (12). This is especially true for individuals who are less skilled and experienced. Competition can result in anxiety and increased perceptions of frustration, which can be largely avoided by focusing on the activity itself. Although competition may elicit desirable motivational strategies in some, avoiding competition or focusing on competing only against oneself may maximize the psychological benefits of exercise. Therefore, learning whether a client is drawn to competition in a healthy way or does not enjoy competitive environments is an important outcome of early meetings with clients that center on learning about their motivations and goals.

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Encourage Self-Selection

New exercisers often seek professional assistance with the mind-set that they need an expert to tell them what to do. Clients who have this attitude may be more compliant at least initially, but this perspective may not be best over the long haul because imposing a prescription on even a willing client can undermine mood responses in subtle ways (16). Self-selection on issues of modality and intensity tends to foster more positive mood responses because of the increased sense of autonomy. It seems as though that even the slightest perception of being controlled by someone else has detrimental effects on perceptions of how the exercise feels. One important exception to this recommendation is that all clients should be encouraged to "sample" all modalities, even those that may not seem appealing, because the numerous options this creates can provide a greater chance that the client will find a modality or modalities right for them. Ultimately, all exercise should be "negotiated" with the end goal of producing empowerment of the client, which should improve mood responses.

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Concentrate on Moderate Intensity

The culture that surrounds sport and fitness often has proclaimed "no pain, no gain" and "go hard or go home." These messages may have value within athletic environments but are likely counterproductive to many regular and novice exercisers. Additionally, some professionals have encouraged clients to tolerate the discomfort of high intensities because it represents "weakness leaving the body." However, research makes clear that intensities beyond moderate do not produce desirable mood responses (14). The onset of perceived exertion that is very high and mood responses that are less positive may provide important biofeedback-type information that can be used to self-regulate intensity in a manner that encourages more activity in the future and long-term adherence. Although the relationship between exertion and mood responses is highly variable and will change with increased fitness, it is likely that a perceived exertion of 12 to 14 (on a 6-to-20 scale) would represent an intensity that would limit the likelihood of negative mood outcomes.

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Focus on In-Task Feelings

Although the feel-good response after the completion of exercise is almost universal, the mood responses during exercise are quite variable and perhaps more important (7). Interestingly, the consistent finding of positive mood states after exercise and generally low physical activity rates points to the possibility that negative responses during exercise may be important predictors of future behavior. Exercisers should be encouraged to engage in activities that make them feel good both during and upon completion because negative feelings during exercise may override any positive feelings that come later. Although positive mood states observed after exercise may be motivating for many individuals, professionals should instruct clients to be more mindful of how the exercise itself "feels" so that this information can be used to inform future decisions regarding exercise intensity.

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Avoid Overtraining

Although regular exercise can produce very desirable psychological responses, excessive training at high intensities, frequencies, and/or durations is associated with negative mood responses (17). In some cases, these mood responses can ultimately lead to clinical depression. These types of outcomes support the general position that too much of almost anything can be unhealthy, including exercise. Although extremely rare among recreational exercisers, negative outcomes provide powerful reminders that days with vigorous and long-duration exercise should be followed by days with complete rest or low-intensity activities. Health and fitness professionals should pay particular attention to this possible outcome when working with clients with very high volumes and intensities of exercise. One potential prevention technique is the periodic tracking of perceived exertion and measurement of mood.

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Consider Individual Differences

When training clients, the professional must remember that the principle suggesting that no two individuals are exactly the same also applies to mood responses. Relatively similar bouts of exercise may produce dramatically different responses among clients because of simple individual differences or because of core differences in personality. Some individuals simply don't respond the way they are "supposed to," and individual responses should be embraced as part of the challenge that health and fitness professionals face in daily work. Ultimately, efforts must be customized to the client and should consider issues such as exercise experience, personality, program goals, and motivational strategy. Periodic review of these issues will assist the health and fitness professional in being more perceptive to how mood responses can be optimized.

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SUMMARY

Health and fitness professionals have long recognized and advocated the basic idea that "exercise makes you feel good," but this statement is incomplete without elaboration. What exactly does "feeling better" mean within the context of affect, moods, and emotions? Some of the differences between these terms are not practically important, but a stronger foundation in these basic psychological principles and a model that explains them can benefit practitioners. Similarly, an understanding of mood measurement can be a valuable tool for professionals. Measurement choice is determined in part by when the measurement is to take place and how much time is available for collecting information. Lastly, practitioners need a set of tools that will allow for progress in the ongoing struggle to help the segment of society that is sedentary but ready to initiate and maintain an active lifestyle. The problem of sedentary behavior and poor exercise adherence will not be solved overnight, but being mindful of the interaction between mood responses and exercise can make a meaningful impact on the clients, patients, and participants served by dedicated health and fitness professionals.

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CONDENSED VERSION AND BOTTOM LINE

The perspective that "exercise feels good" is one that is both true and filled with numerous caveats. This article addresses the underlying psychological principles that resonate from statements such as this and endeavors to provide tips for health and fitness professionals in their efforts to positively impact the exercise behaviors of the individuals they work with.

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References

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Keywords:

Emotion; Affect; Arousal; Adherence; Psychology

© 2008 American College of Sports Medicine