Why To Exercise Today: It Even Helps Therapy

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In junior high, my dear friend Stacey and I instituted a practice that we called the walk-and-talk. We would walk around the streets of our neighborhood discussing topics of burning importance — including which boys we considered "bush babies," that is, attractive enough to want to meet with in the relative privacy of the bushes.

[module align="right" width="half" type="pull-quote"]'Many people skip the workout at the very time it has the greatest payoff.'[/module]

So "The Exercise Effect" in this month's Monitor On Psychology from the American Psychological Association struck a major chord. It begins:

When Jennifer Carter, PhD, counsels patients, she often suggests they walk as they talk. "I work on a beautiful wooded campus," says the counseling and sport psychologist at the Center for Balanced Living in Ohio.

Strolling through a therapy session often helps patients relax and open up, she finds. But that's not the only benefit. As immediate past president of APA's Div. 47 (Exercise and Sport Psychology), she's well aware of the mental health benefits of moving your muscles. "I often recommend exercise for my psychotherapy clients, particularly for those who are anxious or depressed," she says.

Unfortunately, graduate training programs rarely teach students how to help patients modify their exercise behavior, Carter says, and many psychologists aren't taking the reins on their own. "I think clinical and counseling psychologists could do a better job of incorporating exercise into treatment," she says.

"Exercise is something that psychologists have been very slow to attend to," agrees Michael Otto, PhD, a professor of psychology at Boston University. "People know that exercise helps physical outcomes. There is much less awareness of mental health outcomes — and much, much less ability to translate this awareness into exercise action."

The story takes an overarching look at the research on the potential for exercise to alleviate depression and anxiety, and possibly even help smokers quit. It also discusses the significant limitations on the findings so far. And it ends with the ever-baffling question of why we so tend to avoid exercise despite its great benefits. Some final inspiring words:

Therapists would do well to encourage their patients to tune into their mental state after exercise, Otto says — especially when they're feeling down.
"Many people skip the workout at the very time it has the greatest payoff. That prevents you from noticing just how much better you feel when you exercise," he says. "Failing to exercise when you feel bad is like explicitly not taking an aspirin when your head hurts. That's the time you get the payoff."

This program aired on December 9, 2011. The audio for this program is not available.

Carey Goldberg Twitter Editor, CommonHealth
Carey Goldberg is the editor of WBUR's CommonHealth section.