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Habits and StrategiesHappiness

The Best Mental Exercise is Physical

By June 12, 2024No Comments


My grandmother started walking five miles a day when she was sixty. She’s ninety-seven now, and we don’t know where the heck she is.

  • Ellen DeGeneres

It’s no secret that exercise is good for our physical health. But exercise is vital for our mental health as well; and sitting a lot and not exercising is tremendously harmful for our emotional and psychological life.

There has been an upsurge in depression over the past several decades. One major contributor to this is how little physical activity we get. Exercise is just about the best treatment for depression, yet today 50% of men and 60% of women don’t exercise more than ten minutes per week.

Yes, that’s per week.

The most popular treatment for depression is medication. It’s quick to administer, it’s easy to do, but, statistically, for mild to moderate depression it’s actually no better than placebo. It also has side effects that can be pretty unpleasant over time, and when the medication stops, so do its benefits.

Exercise isn’t as easy as medication; it takes work, self-discipline, and perseverance. It requires us to do what we often don’t feel like doing (I’ve probably jumped into a swimming pool tens of thousands of times by now, and to this day I have never liked that moment of entering the water).

But exercise is as much as two and a half times as effective as medication for overcoming depression.

Once we develop the habit of exercise, we can easily overcome the inertia and the discomfort; then the benefits we gain against the depression continue, and the side effects are all positive.

But overcoming the inertia and discomfort – or even the self-concept – that exercise requires can be tricky.

We can develop an idea of ourselves that gets in the way of changing our bad habits to better ones: “I’m not one of those people who exercises…” There is a common feature of anything we do that challenges and grows us: our habitual feelings and behaviors can trick us into thinking that they are somehow more genuine or authentic than other feelings and behaviors that we’d like to have.

But they’re not.

What feels familiar to us is simply and purely what we’ve practiced over and over and over again, to the point that it feels natural. So when we want to change our behavior from sedentary to more physically active, the momentum of a sedentary life can make that lack of physical activity feel more genuine, more in line with our nature.

It can also feel as though our habits hold some kind of magical sway over us: something must have happened to us, or there must be some kind of genetic pre-wiring that makes us helpless to counter those habits.

But it’s not magic, and we’re not helpless… it’s just what over time we’ve told our brains to impel us do automatically. It does take considerable time and energy to establish new habits – which means that it’s not something that any of us will do lightly.

We can know intellectually that exercise is good for us, that we’ll be healthier, that our doctor says we should… but none of these is likely to get us up and moving. Putting forth the effort and energy to become more physically active is one habit that’s very hard for people to get motivated to do.

Being healthier is an abstract concept.  “My doctor told me I should” is about as compelling as “my mom told me to clean my room.”

So how about something like this: “I want to be happy and vibrant and active into my older years; I want to wake up in the morning looking forward to the day, and I want to be able to do the things that make life joyful and meaningful.” Let this vision and desire pull you toward what will get you there, including more exercise.

And maybe more importantly than these longer term – and therefore still abstract – benefits: “I want to feel healthier with more energy later today, because I’ve exercised this morning.” This last one could take a few weeks to establish if you’re not used to exercising regularly, but once you connect the good, tangible, daily feelings of energy and health with having exercised, you have a strong immediate and concrete motivation to exercise today – then tomorrow, then the next day…

This connection of cause and effect goes for everybody, but if you’ve been struggling with depression or anxiety, exercise can be your most powerful antidote.

Let’s look at some specifics: Women who sit for seven hours or more per day are almost 50% more likely to develop major depression. Women who don’t exercise at all have a 99% higher risk of depression. (This isn’t a sexist bias, it’s from a study of 8950 women between the ages of 50-55. It’s likely that men would show similar results).

But if your job requires a lot of sitting, as many jobs do these days, just five minutes an hour of activity will reverse the damaging effects of sitting. This is an important detail, because six hours of sitting without a break deprives you of the benefits of an entire hour of exercise.

Exercise can aid stroke recovery, and reduce the risk of neurodegenerative disorders such as age-related cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s. It can also relieve anxiety, eating and addictive disorders, chronic pain, body image disorders, and even some symptoms of schizophrenia.

Exercise increases the volume of our brain, the health of our blood vessels, blood flow, and functionality, improving our thinking ability significantly. It also improves processing speed and executive function – the ability to consciously choose what we do, as opposed to just following the flow of our established routines.

This is where the stereotype of the dumb jock can get us into trouble. Being physically active makes us more intelligent, not less. It can enhance academic performance in youth, and reduce age-related memory loss.

Some of my friends played in the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. At the entrance to the LA Coliseum are two statues sculpted for those games. They are of a man and a woman athlete, and they have always bothered me… because their heads are missing.

Not only were the models for these statues very intelligent folks as well as tremendous athletes, but the message of the statues is misleading. The Ancient Greeks knew better. They knew that a trained mind and a healthy body went together. We’re just now starting to catch up to that wisdom again.

So, that’s enough sitting and reading for now; let’s get up and get some exercise!

PS: I’m currently expanding my life coaching practice. Go to my website to sign up for a free 30-minute initial conversation.