by Jonathan Brummer
As a college athlete in an extremely physically demanding sport, a great deal of my life centers around exercise. I have always known that exercise is an activity which promotes physical health and for that reason alone, was enough motivation to partake in it. Who in their right mind does not want to ward of diseases like diabetes or maintain strong and healthy heart functions? With a formerly weak immune system and terrible asthma, exercise has improved the quality of my life in ways that I could not have imagined.
This lack of imagination has once again gotten the better of me. It turns out there are surprising psychological benefits of exercise. A study performed at Duke University which studied the levels of depression among subjects divided into three specific treatment groups. These included a group being treated with SSRI’s (Serotonin Specific Reuptake Inhibitors), one with an exercise regime and the final one with a combination of both SSRI’s and exercise. Not surprisingly, all formerly depressed patients showed a significant decrease in depression levels at the end of the study, with two thirds of the group having eradicated it all together. What is surprising however, is the fact that six months after the conclusion of the study, participants in the exercise only group were in better shape, psychologically, than members of either of the other groups. Specifically, the were more likely to have experienced full or partial recovery, even when compared to the exercise plus medication groups.
As a rower, I am intimately familiar with one of the brain’s responses under prolonged physical exertion. The release of endorphin neurotransmitters under such conditions lessen pain and boost mood in what is often called a “runner’s high.” This “high” has very short term effects however, ending shortly after or even during the workout (Myers, 2007). While the sense of accomplishment from achieving a physical goal may also stimulate endorphin release, even this fades within a relatively short time span. This begs the question of how exercise actually affects us in the long run. Does habitual exercise physiologically remap our brains in some way that we naturally maintain higher levels of serotonin or have neurons that are more receptive to these pleasurable neurotransmitters? Or maybe positive changes in one’s self-image through weight loss or an increase in one’s perceived health eventually leads to a physiological change in the brain. If this is the case, then just how necessary are SSRI’s like Prozac and Zoloft, especially given a slew of negative and potentially dangerous side effects that can arise from frequent use?
American Psychological Association (May 28, 2004). Exercise Helps Keep Your Psyche Fit. Retrieved October 10, 2008 from http://www.psychologymatters.org/exercise.html.
Mayo Clinic Staff (2006). Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). Retrieved November 6, 208 from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/ssris/MH00066
Myers, David G. (2007). Psychology (8th ed. in Modules). New York: Worth.