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Mood boosting workouts: 4 exercises to help if you feel low

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Exercise can have an immediate mood boosting effect, so try one of these workouts when you’re feeling low. 

If you’re in a bad mood, the thought of pushing through a run or forcing yourself to relax in a yoga class might make you feel even more miserable than you already are. And yet, those who rely on exercise to boost their mood won’t stop reminding you about those post-workout endorphins

The thing is, a lot of the mental health benefits of training happen in the long term, as research shows that regular exercise can reduce the risk of depression. But what about when you’re in need of an urgent release? If you’re reading this during a stressful day at work, while feeling flat at the push back of freedom day or you’ve just woken up on the wrong side of the bed, there are some types of movement that can help. 

Remember: there’s no one size fits all when it comes to exercise. In most cases, doing something you hate will (unsurprisingly) make you feel worse. If you don’t know what to start with, why not try one of these scientifically approved workouts and see if they can give you a pick-me-up? 

Dancing

There’s nothing quite like a dance to shake a bad mood off. Studies would agree – one published in the Australian Journal of Psychology found that aerobic dance exercise appears to be particularly effective in enhancing mood for female exercisers, and also improved attitudes towards physical appearance and emotional stability immediately after the exercise. As for the long term, other studies show that dance therapy can alleviate symptoms of depression

Opt for a dance-based workout, such as those seen on a member of our Strong Women Collective member Tally Rye’s Instagram. Or go slow, trying out barre workouts that focus on ballet-esque movements. Alternatively, make as Stylist’s editor-at-large Kayleigh Dray, who dances around her kitchen when she feels rubbish: “I shove my phone in a bowl to boost the volume, and dance around like mad to whatever song pops up next on my Spotify ‘Daily Drive’ – which could be anything from Kelly Clarkson and Dua Lipa, to Avril Lavigne and My Chemical Romance (rogue, right?). 

“It may take one song, it may take five, but I always dance until I’ve stopped thinking about whatever it was that was ruining my mood, or I’m too exhausted to care anymore. Either way, it works. I promise.”

Walking

There’s a reason that your daily walk is so encouraged – it’s as big of a mood booster as Christmas is, according to research by the University of Vermont

One person who loves heading out on a walk when they’re feeling low is fitness trainer Emma Obayuvana, also from the Strong Women Collective. “I love to exercise and while any training gives me a hit of endorphins, there’s something about walking that clears my head. I consciously pay attention to the things around me, whether it’s a river, pretty houses or a dog that runs past – and take note of my breathing to really calm me.

“If I’m in a bad place, I need the benefits of the exercise there and then, rather than after the workout, and walking gives that to me.” 

To really boost the mental health benefits of your walk, Emma’s mindfulness techniques can help. As can walking in nature, which is associated with greater mental health benefits. A 2019 study found that a 50 minute walk in a forest amplified the mood boosting outcome of a walk. However, if you don’t have access to a forest you can stroll in, 30–50 min of walking anywhere “can buffer against the wear-and-tear of daily life” the researchers concluded.

A woman smiling as she runs up some outdoor stairs in black activewear.
Running can boost your mood if you're feeling low

Running

Running off anger, stress or sadness is a scene so often depicted in films, but it’s more than a Hollywood trope. Studies prove that running could even improve mood to the same extent as meditation. In research published in Biological Psychology, participants who ran for an hour had an elevated mood as well as an increase in the endorphins. The second group reported a similar change in mood and researchers noticed the same endorphin increase. 

“I run when I’m in a bad mood, and I go fast because I’m fuelled by anger or ‘screw you’ vibes,” Hollie Richardson, Stylist’s digital writer, says. But you don’t have to smash out a 10k PB to get the benefits – any speed or distance will give you a mood boost. In fact, research by the University of Cologne found that cortisol levels were lower after a gentle run than a high-intensity run. But the main takeaway from most research is that running at your preferred pace, whether high or low, will be the most effective in terms of mood.

Yoga

For some, such as Hollie, they need a fast-paced, energy-burning session to feel better. For others, gentle training is all they can manage when they’re feeling low. The good news is that slower workouts will still give you a mood boost. A study in the Journal of Psychology found that mindful, low-exertion activities enhanced mood after a single session – so much that the researchers “called into question the superiority of aerobic exercise over non-aerobic, mindful modes.”

Another study found that yoga is associated with an increase in GABA levels – neurotransmitters that can reduce activity in your nervous system, essentially calming you down. It’s no surprise, given that yoga is so often linked with our breath, which has been shown to ease anxiety and worry. 

Follow @StrongWomenUK on Instagram for the latest workouts, delicious recipes and motivation from your favourite fitness experts.

Images: Getty / Pexels

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Chloe Gray

Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).