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Bad Mood? Get Moving

Fitness Center

"You don't have to be Lance Armstrong," rehabilitation and movement science professor Jeremy Sibold says. His recent research shows that even moderate exercise for 20 or 30 minutes can have positive mental health benefits that last into the day. (Photo: Mario Morgado)

For many, the mental/emotional boost of that morning run or noontime yoga class is every bit as important as the good they do for your body. It's no surprise that exercise benefits the head as well as the heart. But recent research by Jeremy Sibold, associate professor in rehabilitation and movement science, deepens our understanding of the connection by showing that just minutes invested in exercise can return many hours in improved mood.

Presented as a poster at last May's annual meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine, the research quickly drew considerable media interest. After the ACSM included Sibold's findings among research promoted to the press, the story was picked up by some 2,000 outlets, including USA Today and Reader's Digest. Sibold is humbled, even a little embarrassed by the attention, stressing that his was a small, self-contained study that made a modest contribution to the existing literature.

"This certainly doesn't have the presence or impact of a cellular breakthrough — it's not curing cancer," Sibold says. "But it's something the layperson can think about and say, 'Wow, that would be good for me.'" The user-friendly nature of the research results gave the story a strong hook, Sibold suggests. "People can understand it. That and given the timing with healthcare, preventive wellness, the new presidential administration, a combination of those things made it catch fire a little bit."

For the study, Sibold and his co-author Kathy Berg, a doctoral student in physical therapy, randomly split 48 healthy men and women into two groups — one that rested and another that rode an exercise bike at moderate intensity for 20 minutes. Following the exercise or rest period, the subjects filled out a Profile of Mood States questionnaire at intervals of one, two, four, eight, 12, and 24 hours.

The study found that the exercise group experienced significantly less total mood disturbance at 4, 8, and 12 hours. Quantifying the duration of the mood benefit, Sibold says, is where he believes the study has contributed the most to previous research by showing that the emotional boost of exercise carries well into the rest of the day.

The fact that a relatively small amount of exercise produced this benefit is another key finding in the study. "You don't have to be Lance Armstrong," Sibold says. "Out of all of this, to me, it's that point — without killing yourself, you can do a moderate intensity exercise, some sort of aerobic form of exercise for 20 or 30 minutes, and that little bit of investment in terms of time turns into these durable mental health benefits."

Motivating movement

As a student-athlete during his undergraduate days at West Virginia Wesleyan College, Sibold was a baseball player with knees battered from the rigors of his position — catcher. Personal experience as a patient deepened his interest in sports medicine and he also became drawn to the mental dimensions of therapy and fitness. He melded those interests with undergraduate majors in both sports medicine and psychology and later earned his doctorate from West Virginia University in sport and exercise psychology.

Sibold notes that sports psychology usually brings to mind peak performance strategies of elite athletes — Tiger Woods channeling his focus as he stands over a putt or a marathoner runner's pain-proof mantra. But Sibold's interest is broader and more fitness based, seeking answers to questions of what motivates some to hit the road and others to hit the couch.

Those motivations are neither simple nor obvious. "I guarantee that you don't go out for a run because your lipid profiles make you feel better," Sibold says. "You don't lace them up in the morning and say, 'Well, I'm going to go out and make my insulin response more efficient.'"

Sibold is currently collaborating with his colleague David Brock, assistant professor of rehabilitation and movement science, who is the lead researcher on a study that will look closely at exercise motivation for sedentary, overweight adults.

"That's the crux of it; that's the golden egg," Sibold says. "If we could begin to answer why people do or don't exercise — more importantly how do we get them to do it — then you'd be talking about something with a massive impact. We could identity people at risk and tailor interventions so they would keep exercising. Problem solved."

In the meantime, Sibold hopes his recent study, with its promise of improved mood through movement, will get a few more reluctant exercisers onto their feet.

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