Exercise is Depressingly Awesome

20 Dec

I hate exercising for the sake of exercise. I wouldn’t be able to pass my high school’s Presidential Fitness Test today – I mean, I barely passed it back then, and I only passed because our gym teacher let us all cheat at pull-ups – and the idea of “running for fun” is mystifying and unsettling. The only forms of exercise that truly appeal to me involve large, expensive animals that I cannot currently afford (horseback riding, doing stuff with my future giant dog), swimming leisurely, dancing, or actively accomplishing things (i.e., gardening). I also like the playground game Four Square, but it’s really hard to get a group together to play now that I’ve graduated from middle school, and these days everyone wants to do the online kind of Four Squaring anyway.

So when I finally caught up with my backlog of APA Monitors this week, I was pleased to read this month’s Questionnaire section, in which Dr. Howard Friedman was interviewed about his longevity research. As a person who is always searching for justification to avoid the gym, I especially liked the following quote:

“…our studies suggest that it is a society with more conscientious and goal-oriented citizens, well-integrated into their communities, that is likely to be important to health and long life. These changes involve slow, step-by-step alterations that unfold across many years. But so does health. For example, connecting with and helping others is more important than obsessing over a rigorous exercise program.”

Excellent, I thought, chortling to myself. The Presidential Fitness Test can suck it. But a few pages later, I ran into Kirsten Weir’s “The Exercise Effect,” which briefly and convincingly summarizes some recent research supporting the effectiveness of exercise as an intervention for major depression and anxiety disorders. Weir’s article is the latest in a stream of exercise-related literature that has made its way into my hands in the last couple months, and while the notion that exercise can be helpful for depression and anxiety isn’t new, it seems that interest in the focused use of exercise as a behavioral intervention has been on the rise lately. So much for my plans to connect with and help others solely from a sitting position.

This isn’t to say that I neglect discussion of exercise’s benefits when working with clients who are depressed or anxious. It always shows up somewhere in the  “Here-are-some-things-that-we-know-can-be-effective” speech, and sometimes I help clients develop brief behavioral plans to get them moving. But if clients express little interest in exercising, I focus on other interventions and don’t push the issue – because after all, who am I to push someone else to exercise? Yet the research I’ve been exposed to lately suggests that maybe I should be pushing… and not just pushing clients. Weir quotes Dr. Michael Otto, who claims that “failing to exercise when you feel bad is like explicitly not taking an aspirin when your head hurts.” A physician who refuses to use aspirin because it’s “too hard” or “not interesting” would be ridiculed. Should the same level of ridicule be directed at a psychologist who explicitly refuses to exercise?

I’m admittedly biased, but I don’t think Otto’s analogy is a fair comparison. A physical workout is usually a  sweaty, gaspy, time-consuming set of behaviors that requires organizing on the part of the individual and produces effects that aren’t always immediately apparent. (I have never, ever experienced a runner’s high, and there have been times when I have tried to make exercise a serious part of my life.) Taking an aspirin is a three-second endeavor… maybe six seconds, if you have a hard time with the child-proof cap. We’re not talking about similar behavioral investments. There’s also still a lot we don’t know. Should we all be running six miles a day, or will a brisk 20-minute walk a few times a week do the trick? Does it matter if we exercise alone or with others? Weir notes that “researchers don’t yet have a handle on which types of exercise are most effective, how much is necessary, or even whether exercise works best in conjunction with other therapies.”

Despite the questions that remain, the research I’ve been reading lately has encouraged me to make more of an effort to engage my clients in exercise, and to get myself more engaged too. But if my own hate-hate relationship with exercise has taught me anything, it’s that for most of us, exercise must be rewarding in the moment for it to be truly sustainable. If you legitimately enjoy going to the gym or training for 10Ks, then that’s awesome, and I really wish I had a share of your crazy exercise-loving genes. But I don’t think there’s anything wrong with making exercise a secondary component to some other goal, whether that goal is doing something fun with your dog or doing yardwork or getting to the grocery. For me and the clients who despise the gym as much as I do, it may be worthwhile to create behavioral plans that focus on adding exercise to already-enjoyed or necessary activities rather than instituting a “traditional” exercise plan from scratch. Some examples of what I mean:

  • Primary goal: hang out with friends, family, or your partner. Exercise addition: hang out while swimming, walking, window-shopping, dancing or hiking. Or take a movement-based class with friends through a university or community center.
  • Primary goal: have a phone conversation with a family member. Exercise addition: stretch or walk around building during conversation.
  • Primary goal: make a difference in the community. Exercise addition: choose a volunteer activity that requires movement (e.g., cleaning cages at the humane society, participating in fun runs/walks for charity, helping with a Habitat build, etc.)
  • Primary goal: have a romantic evening with your partner. Exercise addition: sex, duh.
  • Primary goal: make apartment/house more attractive. Exercise addition: incorporate active DIY projects, like painting, landscaping, thorough cleaning, etc.
  • Primary goal: cook dinner. Exercise addition: turn on music that makes you want to dance and bust a move while cooking. Ke$ha and LMFAO, though not exactly highbrow, produce some pretty irresistible dance music.
  • Primary goal: play video games. Exercise addition: play games on a console that requires movement (like the Wii or Playstation Move)
  • Primary goal: keep dog from getting bored and chewing up all your stuff. Exercise addition: go on interesting walks or hikes, play frisbee at the dog park, take an agility training class.
  • Primary goal: make extra money during grad school. Exercise addition: babysit an active child or children.

Exercise doesn’t have to involve weights or running shorts to count as exercise, and even small “doses” of exercise seem to produce measurable mental health benefits (see Weir’s article). And if we conceptualize exercise in a simple, essence-based way – as sustained, purposeful movement, separate from the very specific types of movement promoted by Fitness Magazine spreads and Nike commercials  – then maybe I don’t hate exercise at all. It’s the word itself that’s the problem for me, and its connotations of in-the-moment pointlessness and endless striving toward weight- or muscle-based goals that my genes never meant for me to achieve. But dancing while cooking dinner? I can do that. I can like that. And I think some of my clients could too.

Does anyone else have ideas for making exercise a natural addition to primary goals?

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