Exercise is a wonder drug, but you have to get off the couch to benefit

Research shows that fitting in exercise isn’t as demanding as we like to make out

A peek out the door before 7am on a cold Monday revealed a man entering his apartment across the way in shorts, with his duffel bag over his shoulder, clearly returning from the gym down the road.

I recalled immediately that I had, on a to-do list from three years ago, a plan to go walking or cycling as soon as I got up in the morning.

The plan remains on the to-do list along with many other excellent ideas for enhancing my general wellbeing.

To me, part of the point of exercise is that it boosts your mood and there is a great deal of research to back this up. If people exercised more, they would have less need of people like me and others who work in the whole area of mental health and wellbeing.


But though I know about this research, and probably have the book with relevant passages underlined in a dark corner of one of my bookshelves, I still don’t get myself out every morning like Mister 7am across the road.

First five minutes

I was really pleased, then, to read about research at the University of Essex which found that most of the boost in mood that comes from exercise happens in the first five minutes. This is excellent news as it offers a way for the lazy among us to have our cake and eat it too: enjoy the benefits of exercise without having to exercise very much at all.

Exercise is a sort of wonder drug, except that you have to get off the couch to benefit from it. As the university's Dr Jo Barton wrote in an article on the Healthy Parks Healthy People blog (hphpcentral.com), "many types of activities, irrespective of activity and duration (for example, walking, cycling, horse-riding, fishing, conservation and so on), lead to improvements in self-esteem and mood, by reducing feelings of anger, confusion, depression and tension.

“We have also measured physical health benefits, such as reduced blood pressure, and seen how engaging in group activities facilitates social networking and connectivity.”

Amazing effects. If we took them seriously, time spent in parks, on pathways, cycleways and other such places would have to be rationed to meet the demand.

The research is based on exercising in green areas such as parks and woodlands. But whether the green area is a city park or a country forest, we still get health effects from exercising. She notes, though, that green spaces with water have the biggest health effects.

The researchers wondered how long you would have to exercise for to get those improvements in mood. “All durations of activity have a positive effect but the biggest difference is seen in the first five minutes of exposure,” she reports. “Longer amounts have positive effects but do not necessarily equate to significantly greater rewards.”

And I felt like cheering when I read that “light intensity activities produced the greatest effects”.

The researchers found that people with mental ill-health benefited most of all from the mood-boosting effects of the first five minutes.

“This suggests that sedentary participants will receive a large immediate health benefit from light physical activity and such doses of nature will contribute to immediate mental health benefits.”

Fitting in exercise isn’t as demanding as we like to make out. “This can easily be incorporated into a busy schedule,” Barton writes. “For example, parking your car half a mile from where you want to go, and walking the rest. Not eating lunch over the computer but going outside for 5-10 minutes and watching the world. Not driving the children all the way to school or the bus stop – again, stop and walk in.”

Okay, it isn’t as impressive as Mister 7am coming back from the gym in his shorts but, there again, we don’t know that he didn’t just stay for five minutes.

If you want to know more, check out the University of Essex green exercise website at greenexercise.org

Padraig O'Morain is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is Mindfulness for Worriers. His daily mindfulness reminder is free by email. pomorain@yahoo.com Twitter: @PadraigOMorain