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Body of Evidence

New studies suggest that physical exercise is good for mental health, too


Published January 18, 2012 at 9:25 a.m.


Forty years after the fitness revolution began, the message that exercise is good for the body is a familiar one, to say the least. Hardly a day goes by without hearing some new reason to get off the couch and get our hearts pumping.

What’s less well known is that exercise gets your head right, too. Sadness. Trouble concentrating. Problem drinking. Fear of bullies. Lack of self-efficacy, or the sense of being capable to do something to meet our goals — all these problems can be mitigated by exercise. Even moderate exercise. Even if we don’t do it every day.

Given that exercise is so good for the brain, Jeremy Sibold, an assistant professor of rehabilitation and movement science at the University of Vermont, has wondered: Why isn’t physical exercise part of our approach to treating people with mental health problems?

“It’s largely free,” he points out, “or at least it’s cost effective. It’s accessible to just about everybody. And there’s growing research that shows that it can be as effective as some of the common drugs used in mental health.”

Exercise does double duty for patients with physical ailments that can put them at risk for mental health issues. “There are connections between heart disease and depression, for example, and exercise could be a potential tool that addresses both,” Sibold says.

This finding isn’t germane only to depressed adults. In his research, Sibold has found that sadness and suicidality are reduced in adolescent victims of bullying who are more physically active. “If that’s true,” he asks, “then why are we cutting PE?”

A kid whose self-efficacy and confidence have grown as a result of exercise may be better able to stand up to a bully or report him to a teacher. What about the kids who don’t make sports teams — the ones who are a little heavier, who have a short leg, who wind up being ostracized, labeled or bullied? “Why not target those exact groups with play?” Sibold muses. “[It] doesn’t have to be team stuff with rules and times and all that … but physical activity, because it improves their identity and their self-efficacy.”

As for the bullies themselves, Sibold continues, “Might we consider talking to these kids while we’re going for a walk or a jog [with them], when they’re clearer and more focused to receive that message?”

Sibold, 37, began his career as head football athletic trainer for West Virginia Wesleyan College; he went on to earn a master’s in sports medicine and a doctorate in sports and exercise psychology. At UVM, he works with neuroscientists, athletic trainers, psychologists, doctors and physical therapists, and that cross-disciplinary outlook has led him to some interesting results.

Recently, Sibold was invited to collaborate with a group of UVM psychologists who wanted to study mood and exercise in mice. He hadn’t done research with animals before, and says he felt lucky to work with the psychologists. “I come from a different background, so I kind of had the ability, or the luxury, of being able to ask the dumb questions, because I didn’t know enough not to ask them.”

As his team discussed ways to study the effect of running on mouse anxiety, Sibold turned the research question on its head. He suggested that they study whether stressed-out mice choose to run.

What they found made headlines. Mice, it turns out, appear to use exercise to calm down. In a study published in the journal Perceptual and Motor Skills, the research team reported that mice that had undergone stress in the form of foot shocks subsequently ran on their exercise wheels 10 times more than their unstressed counterparts. Researchers already knew that voluntary exercise reduces anxiety. But no one had previously demonstrated any organism’s innate call to exercise after stress.

“They made the voluntary choice to go run following stress,” Sibold says, and imagines jokingly what might have been going through the mice’s minds after the foot shocks: “‘What the heck was that? I’m goin’ for a run!’’’

Why do we care that mice run when they’re stressed? Because it’s so hard to test psychologically complex humans for a hardwired urge to exercise in stressful conditions — though we may well have one. Mice also give researchers a chance to figure out why the reaction happens in the first place. Sibold is working on a follow-up study to examine what’s behind the mice’s response, testing another researcher’s hypothesis that the worry-producing frontal lobes of the brain “go offline” during exercise.

If researchers can prove in future studies that running actually calms mice down, this experiment “could be a really profound statement that these little guys ran away their anxiety, or self-medicated, if you will,” Sibold says. “Maybe this is more support for these notions that we should look at exercise as part of the treatment following something [stressful].”

In another much-reported experiment published in Perceptual and Motor Skills, Sibold and his colleagues demonstrated that the improvement in mood that comes from exercise lasts 12 hours in healthy college students. That kind of information about timing is key to developing ways to prescribe exercise.

“We know you take a certain amount of aspirin at certain intervals for your headache, because they’ve done thorough studies on the chemistry of how that works, the physiological response,” Sibold explains. “Well, we aren’t there yet for exercise. It’s called the dose response … What intensity of exercise? How frequent, how long, what mode? Is it self-selected, is it not? Is it in groups, is it not?”

Working out the right timing, as well as the right kind of exercise for people in various situations, is a relatively young area of research.

Sibold himself gets his mellow on as an early-morning swimmer. “That five to 6:30 slot is my time,” he says. “That balances me out for the rest of the day. Other folks need the social piece, the cohesive piece, the social acceptance and affirmation of having friends,” he adds. “Others want to do game-related competition. Other folks are, Nah, competition’s gonna be threatening.”

Even while researchers are still working out the nitty-gritty, health care providers can do better than just telling their patients to get more exercise. There are common-sense ways to tailor that advice. “You have to match the exercise and the exercise environment to the person for it to really stick as a behavior,” Sibold points out.

Take, for example, a hypothetical single mother who is facing a lot of stress, is self-conscious about her body and is unaccustomed to exercising. “There are many exercises or many programs that wouldn’t work for this person,” Sibold stresses. “You say, ‘OK, we want you to pay a bunch of money for this gym membership, and we’re gonna throw you in a spinning class’… Either she’s never gonna approach that, or she’s gonna do it once and say, ‘The heck with that; I’m never doing that [again].’ You need to make the right match.”

So if that single mom isn’t into gym memberships or hyperadrenal spinning, how about a walking group with friends? Or an exercise video from the public library? “You can modify the context so it’s so much less threatening,” says Sibold. “You’re adapting the prescription.”

How has his research gone over among his colleagues? The only pushback he’s seen, Sibold says, involves questions about how to motivate people to exercise. After all, he points out, “It’s a lot easier to take a pill” for ailments such as depression.

“There are always the ‘yes, buts’ in the conversations,” he says. “People will oftentimes say, ‘Yeah, I hear you, but it’s hard,’ or ‘Yeah, I hear you, but I don’t have time,’ or ‘Yeah, I hear you, but it costs money to join a gym.’ We’re just talking about walking, or riding a bike, or whatever.”

Getting people to exercise on a nationwide scale is “the golden question, right? If we can get people to do it,” Sibold concludes, “it’s game over.” In a healthy way.