DaVita Stories

Exercise is also Good for Your Mental Health

Editor’s note: May is National Employee Health and Fitness Month. This post was originally published on the Family Talk Blog January 14, 2016. It was republished with permission, on DaVita Stories.

When I was a young man, I was pretty sedentary. I grew up in a family of physically inactive adults. My parents played tennis every blue moon, but didn’t really move their bodies very often (except maybe to the bakery to buy pastries on Sundays!). I didn’t play sports in high school. I preferred to read long depressing Russian novels. In college, I occasionally played basketball during lunch. That was pretty much the extent of my moving in space.

But, when I met my wife in graduate school, I was influenced by her good habits. She had been a professional modern dancer in New York City and was always taking dance classes. In the early 70’s when we met, jogging was just becoming popular. Inspired by her high level of fitness, I started running. Regular exercise became a part of my life, and 39 years later, it still is.

Teenagers involved in sports may be in great shape. But what happens after they graduate from High School? They may not have regular exercise habits that are independent of their sport. Even active adults can find themselves becoming less active during various times of their lives. When their kids are little it’s hard to find the time or energy to exercise. Starting a new job and starting a new exercise program don’t fit together very well.

Yet, exercise is the low hanging fruit of good mental health. A study done in 2007 demonstrated that exercise was equally effective in improving mood in moderately depressed adults as medication! (Psychosomatic Medicine, 2007). Another study was done with individuals with high anxiety. The researchers found that regular exercise decreased the “anxiety sensitivity” of the subjects. Exposed to the same stressful triggers, they experienced less anxiety.

An experimental psychologist conducted a study where more aggressive mice were paired with more passive animals. The passive mice, after a short time, became withdrawn and anxious appearing. But one group of mice proved resilient to this stressor. These mice had been placed in an enriched environment prior to exposure to the “bully” mice. In that environment, they had exercise wheels and tubes to explore. Michael Lehmann PhD, the investigator, noted that “exercise and mental enrichment may buffer how the brain will respond to future stress”.

Dr. Lehmann found that the brains of the active mice had evidence of increased activity in the infralimbic cortex, part of the brain’s emotional processing circuit. The bullied mice that were in more Spartan environments did not have evidence of increased activity in this part of the brain.

Given all the evidence that exercise is good for your mood and wellbeing, why is so hard to do?  According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention some 25% of the population reported zero percent leisure time physical activity! (2008).

Dr. Otto, co-author of the 2011 book, “Exercise for Mood and Anxiety; Proven Strategies for Overcoming Depression and Enhancing Well-being”, has studied this vexing problem. When exercisers go above their respiratory threshold—when it’s hard to talk—they postpone exercise’s immediate mood boost by almost 30 minutes. (APA monitor, Dec 2011). He also blames the emphasis on the physical benefits of exercise as a reason why adults don’t get off the couch. It can take months of exercise before an individual’s health improves. But the mood boosting effects of even moderate exercise occur almost immediately.

So what can an inactive adult do?

  • Start slow. Walking is a great exercise. The American Diabetes Association found that 10,000 steps a day leads to good health and well-being. That’s a tall order, at about 5 miles a day of hoofing! But start with 10 minutes, and add one minute a day. Your body will adjust to the increased activity and slowly, but surely, you will increase your distance—and your mood!
  • Find an exercise partner. I like to walk during the lunch hour, and frequently can get in about 8,000 steps! I like to go with one or more of my colleagues. We walk and talk together, and the time passes more quickly. When my office was next to Providence Hospital in Everett, I exercised in the hospital gym during lunch. One of the additional benefits of this routine was the friendships that developed with other exercisers over a 10 year period!
  • Find a time to exercise that is convenient for you. There is no magical time to go to the gym or to hit the pavement. If it is going to become a regular part of your life it has to be convenient for you.
  • Buy a big umbrella! Don’t let the rain short circuit your routine. Remember, it’s only water.
Dr. Paul Schoenfeld

Dr. Paul Schoenfeld

Dr. Paul Schoenfeld is a clinical psychologist with The Everett Clinic, a DaVita Medical Group, and the Director of The Everett Clinic’s Center for Behavioral Health. He specializes in working with children, families and adults. In his spare time, he’s a second degree black belt in Aikido (a peaceful martial art) and teaches aikido to children in Seattle. In addition (like many Pacific Northwesterners) he likes to hike, bike, and play in the sun (and rain).