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An Unexpected Way that Mood Can Boost Exercise

written by Marie-Josée Shaar 5 May 2015
Problem solving

Marie-Josée (MJ) Salvas Shaar, MAPP '07, CPT, has studied, tested, coached, and taught smart health habits for over 13 years. Combining positive psychology with fitness and nutrition, she created a coaching method that builds better sleep, food, mood, and exercise habits, as described in her book, Smarts and Stamina: The Busy Person's Guide to Optimal Health and Performance, which includes 50 practical health-building activities. Today MJ gives keynotes for corporate wellness programs and offers continuing education for wellness professionals, who can license her Smarts and Stamina Online program. Full bio. MJ's articles are here.

If something is your problem, then it’s not your solution!

Sounds obvious in theory, yet I rarely see this very basic idea used in health promotion. The majority of wellness programs, whether worksite wellness, wellness coaching, or self-help publications, only address food and exercise. Since food and exercise are what most people struggle most with, why is that where we spend most of our energy? It’s really time we help wellness evolve a little.

I’m not denying that these 2 groups of habits are really important, nor suggesting that we should stop working on them altogether. But food and exercise are only a fraction of what we have to offer, and focusing solely on them limits results.

Those of you who know me also know that I’m a proponent of adopting a strengths-based approach to well-being. Working on habits that most people don’t find as difficult as food and exercise and exploring topics complementary to traditional wellness can truly stimulate progress. I’ve written many articles on that topic, some listed in the references.

Today, I’d like us to explore yet another reason why complementary disciplines are helpful. More specifically, I want to look at the mood-exercise connection. Loyal to the Smarts and Stamina Health Promotion Model, I will do so by explaining some underlying biochemical activity.

Oxytocin Can Reduce Fear

Oxytocin is known as the “love hormone” because it promotes bonding as well as positive social and romantic relationships. I often equate it to a grandma, because it makes us feel warm and fuzzy.

A 2014 study found that oxytocin “inhibits the fear center in the brain and allows fear stimuli to subside more easily.” Study director Dr. René Hurlemann says, “Oxytocin actually reinforces extinction: Under its influence, the expectation of recurrent fear subsequently abates to a greater extent than without this messenger.”

His study concludes that oxytocin may offer new avenues for enhancing extinction-based therapies for anxiety disorders.

Ways to boost oxytocin include cuddling, kissing, hugging, or playing with a pet.

Fear Keeps Us Away From Exercise

A lot of people set aside their best exercise intentions because of recurrent fear, whether it is fear of failure, fear of ridicule, fear of pain, fear of injury, or fear of running out of energy before the day is over. Many will say it’s lack of time when in fact, they have plenty of time to watch TV. They just don’t want to admit their fears out loud or even to themselves!

New Mood-Exercise Connection

You probably see where I’m going with this by now. If oxytocin helps inhibit fear, and fear keeps us from exercise, can higher levels of oxytocin lead to more physical activity?

To Gert-Jan Pepping, researcher at the Center for Human Movement Sciences at the University of Groningen in The Netherlands, and author of a new review of oxytocin and competition, the idea makes sense, especially in the context of team sports. His research shows that oxytocin can increase bonding among teammates, which in turn can boost physical performance.

That being said, I am unaware of research studying whether higher oxytocin levels can cause people to follow through with their exercise intentions directly. If you know of any, please share!

In the meantime, let me point out that this oxytocin-fear-suppression-exercise hypothesis isn’t the first nor the only mood-exercise connection I’ve ever discussed. It serves as a potential reinforcement to the Smarts and Stamina Health Promotion Model; but it isn’t the whole story.

Application for Health Promotion?

I realize that to some readers, the relationship between increased oxytocin and increased exercise may seem a little far-fetched, and I certainly don’t expect that very many will run to create formal oxytocin-boosting interventions to see what will happen to exercise habits of their participants. But isn’t the hypothesis worth an experiment or two?

We will probably never see true research happen on the topic if we don’t try out the concept in the first place. I’m all for good research, but research can follow good ideas, not just the other way around. Those who wait for all the research to be done can scarcely be called innovators. Who among us will be the wellness leaders to step out of the food-exercise paradigm and explore promising new solutions?




This article was simultaneously published in the Smarts and Stamina blog.

Castillo, S. (2015). Follow Your Dreams Without Fear: Oxytocin, Emotional Self-Regulation Turn Threat Into Opportunity. Medical Daily.

Eckstein, M., Becker, B., Scheele, D., Scholz, C. Preckel, K., Schlaepfer, T. E., Grinevich, V., Kendrick, K. M., Maier, W., & Hurlemann, R. (2014). Oxytocin facilitates the extinction of conditioned fear in humans. Biological Psychiatry. Doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.biopsych.2014.10.015. Abstract

Pepping, G.-J. & Timmermans, E. J. (2012). Oxytocin and the biopsychology of performance in team sports. The Scientific World Journal.

Reynolds, G. (2012, November 12). The ‘love’ hormone as sports enhancer. New York Times Blog, Phys Ed.

Shaar, M.-J. (2015). Can the arts contribute to health promotion?. Positive Psychology News.

Shaar, M.-J. (2014). Health habits work better together. Positive Psychology News.

Shaar, M.-J. (2014). The surprising ingredient of good health. Positive Psychology News.

Shaar, M.-J. (2013). Dogs: The ultimate health promotors. Positive Psychology News.

Shaar, M.-J. & Britton, K. (2011). Smarts and Stamina: The Busy Person’s Guide to Optimal Health and Performance. Philadelphia, PA: Positive Psychology Press.

Universität Bonn (2014, 13 November). Oxytocin helps to better overcome fear. Science Daily Press Release.

Zak, P. (2012). The Moral Molecule: The Source of Love and Prosperity. Dutton Adult.

Zhivotovskaya, E. (2012). Oxytocin: Go out and touch someone. Positive Psychology News.

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Judy Krings 6 May 2015 - 3:55 pm

Hi, Marie Josee!

“Just do it” comes to mind. Quit making excuses. Get up and jump up and down for 2′. Laugh at yourself. Be proud! Get your blood circulating. After awhile, you can do this 2-3 times a day, and at least you feel less guilty if your day gets in the way (your choices that is) not to exercise. And I am guilty as charged some days. OK, I will keep this short, as I am going to get up and do 10′ on my exercise machine before more writing. Big thanks for the motivation.

Scott Crabtree 6 May 2015 - 5:06 pm

Nice new thinking, MJ! I completely agree that research can follow ideas, and sometimes the first experiments come with our own lives.

As I read I thought of other studies (which I suspect you are aware of) that when we improve self-discipline in one area of our lives, other areas improve as well. I recall hearing in Willpower by Kelly McGonigal that if someone quits smoking cigarettes, for example, they also eat better and save more, for example.

Perhaps you (we, whoever) can tailor self-improvement intervention programs targeting areas besides diet and exercise, and yet positively effect diet and exercise.

Keep the good stuff coming! 🙂
Scott Crabtree, Chief Happiness Officer, http://www.HappyBrainScience.com

Marie-Josée Shaar 7 May 2015 - 6:17 pm

Thanks for the enthusiasm, Judy and Scott! It’s good to see that you liked my perspective, and I appreciate you taking the time to comment!

Scott, I can only assume that you don’t know me yet. Didn’t know you either, and it’s good to meet you! I just visited your website. I discovered that we work on very similar things (wellness workshops that are science-based and aimed at improving happiness and productivity), which is quite a treat! 😉

To your comment, “Perhaps you (we, whoever) can tailor self-improvement intervention programs targeting areas besides diet and exercise, and yet positively effect diet and exercise”, well, that’s what I’ve been doing for the last 5-7 years! LOL!

My entire approach is all about improving sleep, food, mood and exercise, using the interactions between them. I study and I speak on how improving one of these groups of habits will have positive consequences on the other 3. So I encourage a strengths-based approach, where wellness participants don’t work on what’s hardest for them, but work on something that will be easier and more motivating. As they accumulate small victories in other departments, we observe if that had any effect on whatever what hardest for them in the first place (usually it does). So for example, someone who has a hard time with food may benefit from sleep and mood interventions. As sleep improves, cortisol goes down, which reduces cravings. As mood improves, we can reduce emotional eating. So when we come back to food later on, it’s no longer as big a challenge. There’s a lot more to it than that, but the quick example gives you an idea of how I work.

Check out my site – http://www.SmartsAndStamina.com and if you like what you see, let’s plan to meet by phone sometime soon, shall we? 😉


The Smarts and Stamina Team

Scott Crabtree 7 May 2015 - 6:38 pm

Great stuff on your site MJ. Are you going to the IPPA World Congress at the end of June in Florida? How about we meet there?

MJ 8 May 2015 - 6:46 am

As much as I would have liked to meet you at IPPA, Scott, I won’t be there. I should be delivering my first son on June 24th… Small scheduling conflict, you see? LOL!

Cassandra 10 December 2015 - 6:47 pm

Hi MJ! I definitely agree that there are unconventional ways to boost mood rather than food and exercise. At my university, we actually have pet therapy during our finals week to give students a chance to take a break and boost their mood!


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