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  • Writer's pictureNick Serro

DIRT FROM THE ROOTS 20: MENTAL HEALTH AND EXERCISE


Welcome back to DIRT FROM THE ROOTS, your monthly blog for discovering new perspectives on interesting, insightful, and obscure topics within the mental health and psychology fields. This month we will discuss the benefits that can be drawn from the mind-body connection in mental health and exercise


TOPIC OF THE MONTH MENTAL HEALTH AND EXERCISE


"I believe depression is legitimate. But I also believe that if you don’t exercise, eat nutritious food, get sunlight, get enough sleep, consume positive material, surround yourself with support, then you aren’t giving yourself a fighting chance.
Actor Jim Carrey

OH NO! This blog has turned into a self-help 15-minute full life fix fitness advertisement?? Get out quick!


Fear not; I have no supplement nor workout video to sell you, there will be no hardass drill sergeant-type shame-motivators, and ultimately I believe that the most important facet of exercising is not intensity nor prestige of activity, but rather that something is being found enjoyable and sustainable. The connection of exercise and mental health, or more specifically the idea of gaining energy and motivation from physical movement, is oddly one of the more overlooked aspects of life in some ways.


Perhaps the semantics are what are getting us here: the Oxford dictionary defines ‘exercise’ as “activity requiring physical effort, carried out to sustain or improve health and fitness.” A better way to look at our focus today might be better framed as “physical effort which in turn creates positive changes in mental and physical health, whether intentional or not”.


A BRIEF RETURN TO MONKEY

Let’s start by quickly looking at why exercise improves our mental health. Though there is no hard and defined answer, we can look at a few primal levels to take a guess on where these roots come from.


An evolutionary approach– survival:

the reason that hormones are produced during exercise may originally be rooted in the advantage that you'd be better off able to turn things up a few gears in times of crisis such as being chased by predators or needing to find food during scarcity. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors certainly benefited from improved skills of physical exertion such as digging, climbing, running, swimming, and the like to find resources to survive. Though this alone would be motivation enough to at least attempt the behaviors, it is ultimately pretty counterintuitive when we consider that humans will feel less mental anguish and added energy when running faster and objectively exerting more energy. As we will (obviously) cover later on, the evolutionary hypothesis on ADHD is actually focused around how these neurotypes may just be better suited to a more nomadic and exercise-based lifestyle than the current world allows. All in all, humans survived a harsh primitive earth largely due to these mental benefits of exercise which motivated us enough to continue thriving.


An evolutionary approach– reproduction:

secondarily, the physical response of a body to significant exercise is to, well, let the world know that we are healthy and fit for survival. Of course, this is also essentially an extension of the survival evolutionary approach– we tend to be more attracted to people who are in great shape not entirely just because this particular aesthetic has been constructed as a platonic ideal, but also because it indicates that this person would have better odds at creating evolutionarily advantageous offspring. Even though modern society has advanced far beyond our primitive roots, someone who looks strong can quite literally be seen as more desirable due to their improved chance of protection, someone with in-shape curvaceous features is signaling reproductive health and fertility, and similar factors that may break down as much more simple than we might expect for such a complex concept.


A cognitive approach:

from a more modern perspective, some find benefit through manipulating exercise into an even greater motivator and reframing intentions to consider specific elements of “getting into shape” as more tangibly encouraging than most self improvement routes. Someone who would like to bench press 200 pounds can easily and tangibly see markers that they are reaching this goal, as they are objectively getting stronger as they move from 80 pounds to 100 pounds and so on. Someone who has lived a life overweight may receive a waterfall shower of positive comments even 2 weeks into their exercise process, which may be a larger motivator than ever experienced before. And finally, the ideas of regulation, discipline, dedication, and self-esteem building are inherently intertwined with someone creating an exercise routine, and just going to do something for self-improvement at a steady pace week after week alone may be a large factor behind profound benefits in life improvement.


The holistic approach:

altogether, there are so many benefits that can be derived from exercise that this ends up looking like a small and inconclusive list. From existential, emotional, and cognitive levels, there is more reason than most concepts in all of mental health to feel confident that some sort of sustained and repeated movement schedule will result in a positive change one way or another.


POSITIVE MENTAL BENEFITS OF EXERCISE


Just to show some evidence, here are some research-backed reasons that explain why exercise feels good: Per the National Library of Medicine (NIH), exercise has statistically shown to correlate with...


  • reduced anxiety, depression and negative mood

  • Improvement in self-esteem, mental alertness, and cognitive function

  • Alleviation of symptoms around low self-esteem and social withdrawal

  • Improved sleep

  • Increased interest in sex

  • Better endurance and stamina (physically, mentally, and emotionally!)

  • Lowered stress levels

  • Increased positive mood

  • Healthier internal balance (such as weight, cholesterol, cardiovascular, etc)


One would be hard-pressed to say that they do not see the value of exercise based on this list. We see a general theme that shows that indeed, exercise does– at least on a statistically correlated level– provide almost every benefit that we typically see desired in self improvement. While this is obviously not as explicit as we may like– anyone who has begun an exercise routine knows that there are some, but not overwhelming amounts of immediate benefit without long-term consistency– it does show to be largely universal and effective to the population over time.


But despite all this being so positive and rosy, we cannot ignore a more prominent factor in exercise being the difficulty that we can find in getting ourselves to do it.




BUT WAIT, NICK… I HATE EXERCISE :(
COMMON DETERRENTS & IDEAS TO OVERCOME THEM


Ah, yes. As you are about to see, part of the deterrent from exercise can actually come from the overhyping of how miraculous the activity is, regardless of how much accuracy may or may not hold true in that perception. Fear not. If you were an alien reading this article, you would likely assume that every human exercised 8 hours a day and lived a life full of confidence, energy and euphoria. Unfortunately, we as humans know that it can actually be quite hard to exercise, particularly on a consistent basis.


I have comically (but accurately) described myself through the phases of my life as either “in an exercise addiction period” or “never consciously thinking about exercise”, despite the fact that realistically, it is one of, if not THE most regulating coping mechanism I have ever found personally. I have tried, but cannot personally find a balance that is not “exercising every possible day” or “never even considering exercise outside of what is built into life”. From an ADHD perspective, it is the repetition and demands of consistency which make things difficult, but there are countless other reasons that others might be deterred. Here are a few typical reasons that we avoid exercise and some ideas on how to combat them.


FEELING OF OBLIGATION/OVERWHELM:

Perhaps the most prominent reason that most people do not exercise is a combination of implied necessity and daunting scheduling. In a modern world of 40+ hour workweeks on top of the endless other tasks and obligations of life, it is not surprising that the idea of adding on exercise to the mountain feels like it is too much. In true cruel irony, plenty of evidence suggests that consistent exercise would be a solution to these feelings, but reality prevents us from seeing that fully. The pressure to exercise and certain ‘fitness culture’ norms can create great guilt and shame around the idea (think something along the lines of, “you don’t have time to exercise? You don’t care about your health or future??”) as well as a competitive nature that can create false dilemmas such as “exercise only works if you do it constantly” or the idea that certain exercises or extremity of activity have value judgments as better or worse than others. When we see people doing intense, multiple month workout regimens or consider the insane conditioning and training done by professionals, it is not too hard to feel like us taking a 15 minute walk as a completely worthless activity in the scope of improving our fitness– even though it most certainly is!


TRY THIS: first and foremost, the idea of “tricking”-- for lack of a better word– ourselves into exercise has shown great efficacy. You are probably going to find it very difficult to walk an extra 2 miles every day if we look at that as a raw and isolated goal, but you are likely not going to notice that you are meeting the goal daily if instead you just start walking a mile to work and a mile home from work. Any way that we can “sneak” exercise into our lives– maybe think about it like how there are many vegetables on a hamburger that a child who has a negative perception of vegetables alone will eat no problem due to the overall perception of wanting the burger– can become a very easy way to receive great health benefits. If this is more difficult to access, finding activities we enjoy that innately involve exercise without it being the main focus– games that require physical movement, hiking, swimming, dancing, action sports, yoga, and similar– can also achieve the same goal of exercise without having to think about it consciously.


GUILT, SHAME, COMPARISON AND OTHER FUN NEGATIVE EMOTIONS:

Here’s a phrase I heard a lot as an adolescent: everyone you see at the gym started from 0. That made sense until I saw the dudes that were 6’4 and naturally muscular lifting unbelievable amounts of weight. While this is not the worst way to approach someone with anxiety around starting at a gym, it’s also not the best given that it sets up comparison and is ripe to develop into easily disappointed expectations. This underlying negative ‘buzz’ will assuredly make it more difficult to go to exercise in general, and this can create a situation in which we may want to feel the benefits of exercise but choose not to due to unrecognized sub-emotions underneath.


TRY THIS: as will be covered soon, there are plenty of ways to exercise where we can control who is or is not seeing us, feel confident and comfortable in the activity, and similar changes in environment. But another approach is to look for the best ideal of our own bodies and abilities, as a 4’10 gymnast, a 400 pound lineman, and the traditional “perfect figure” body all have VERY different appearances yet can all ascend to the absolute apex of athletic success if they use them correctly. We likely feel and look best when we are presenting as the healthiest version of our own frame, and therefore trying to achieve a goal that does not match to our body/abilities would be similar to trying to dress in a style that we do not relate to. An additional note here is just to reiterate that what we aesthetically see as ‘athletic’ does not necessarily correlate at all with actual athletic ability, skills, or healthiness; there have been successful athletes that are just 5’5 in basketball and baseball, someone watching a “world’s strongest” competition might be surprised that the athletes look overweight, and so on.


THE “RUNNER’S HIGH” IS NOT REAL:

The “Runner’s High” refers to the sensation of intense happiness, satisfaction, and/or relaxation that some feel after extended bouts of strenuous exercise. This phenomenon can happen both during and after exercise, and though fleeting, can last for a few hours. We know that this is derived from neurotransmitter release that occurs during exercise, but fascinating new evidence shows that this is likely not due to endorphins– which run through the internal system that opioids would bind to– but rather endocannabinoids– the system that cannabinoids would bind to. Many have stated that this facet of exercise is the ‘hook’ that keeps them going. On an evolutionary level, there is good reason to hypothesize that this chemical response exists intentionally: not only might we have to continue running for miles and miles, but the wear and tear on our bodies requires a powerful counter in order to mitigate pain and blistering.


As is perhaps the theme of this blog, however, simply brightsiding exercise as a magical healthy drug is far too short sighted; not only have studies found the phenomenon to be rarer than expected, but even those who experience the feeling do not report it to be consistent or even predictably attained. While the most constant dependent variable of activation seems to be the intensity and duration, there is no evidence that suggests this is a direct correlation nor that those who have never experienced the sensation have just “not pushed far enough”. Much like, well, all of our information around neurotransmitters, this is yet another mystery that we can mildly interpret, but do not even partially understand.


I see two sides of this coin: as someone who feels a strong euphoria in response to weightlifting, it’s unfortunate that not all can experience this motivator. On the other end, it is one of my more common points in therapy to bring up that despite feeling like a million dollars in my peak exercise/healthy eating routine of life, it only sustained a few months. I can agree with studies that attaining the feeling is not consistently repeatable, though on a personal level there does seem to be a correlation with lifting heavier, more strenuous weight. While the runner’s high is an excellent immediate motivator, it is not the only one nor does it seem to have any particular advantages over the many other motivators. Also notable: exercise is much different at a rote, rudimentary level than in full complexity. While most probably think it looks fun to catch a 50 yard touchdown pass down the sideline, not sure how many would agree that the 100 yard suicide runs the player did for grueling stretches in practice would hold the same thrill.


TRY THIS: I unfortunately have no ancient wisdom on how to unlock the runner’s high, nor do I have some breakthrough evidence that shows everyone can attain it, but we can take some generalized ways of looking at the phenomenon for those who are curious. Foremost, it does exist, and is not a myth despite seemingly lacking universality. As far as improving chances, we do see evidence that endocannabinoids are 3x higher in human brains in the morning than at night, so some logic exists that exercise closer to waking up has a better chance of activation. Some research suggests that duration is more important than intensity, so an activity that is done at 70-80% for longer than usual might be more conductive than going 100% for as long as the body will allow. Unsurprisingly, endocannabinoid production is also higher when we have slept a full 8 hours, so being well rested may also be a factor. Finally, addition of extra stimulus is also suspected to play a role in activating the runner’s high: but while this can be music or a partner, it can also be strong acute negative feelings of anxiety or frustration. If we do entertain a more evolutionarily focused approach, it would be rational to assume that we must trigger our systems into perceiving some kind of necessity for enhanced neurotransmitters, so perhaps the most blanketing advice here would be to try and exercise in ways that the body is not expecting.


THE MONOTONY OF REPEATED ACTIVITIES:

As stated earlier, this is my worst issue, and to some degree we see interaction with the previously mentioned inconsistency of the ‘runner’s high’ involved as well. On a more macro level, anything we do repeatedly is going to become perceptually different once the brain conceptualizes the habit, and often someone who felt great when initially exercising can begin to lack more and more motivation as they adjust to the routine and see the predictability or dullness of the activity.


Others might just feel that they have ‘plateaued’ at a certain activity, and the motivation of exercise just to maintain a plateaued standard is far less effective than the motivation of exercise showing tangible increases in visual, physical, and mental ways. Our previous experiences with exercise can also impact how we perceive things– someone who grew up playing competitive soccer may absolutely despise conditioning-type exercises due to rough associations to the high intensity of practice, and also may struggle to find ways to exercise later in life as a pick-up soccer game is far less accessible and inconsistent than just exercising with the convenient resources available.


TRY THIS: Well, occam’s razor here is simple: rotate amongst the thousands of ways to exercise. But further, I believe a deeper factor could be connected to a false premise that we should ‘force’ ourselves to exercise in a certain way or at a certain rate. Noting that rest is when we actually become stronger and our body signals exhaustion for good reason can help us take more adequate breaks which may help counter the feeling that an activity is dragging, and create more intention and effectiveness in times that we do exercise. Taking a break from exercise may give the body time to heal and may also reinvigorate the stronger initial positive feelings that have gone away after repetitive exercises. Trying unique new forms of exercise, from jiu-jitsu to a birdwatching group, may also create novel ways to get moving which can spark a stronger positive reaction to the activity or distract from the raw perception that we are exercising just to exercise.


ACTUAL NEGATIVE EFFECTS OF EXERCISE:

And it’s truly not all sunshine and rainbows! When they say everything in moderation, they do mean it. Excessive exercise can obviously risk injury, breakdown, and potential health issues if not accompanied by ample rest and healthy refueling. There is a lot of evidence that suggests we should be extra cautious with things such as powerlifting and excessive running due to the unnatural stress it can put on our joints and knees; the last thing we want from 40 years of trying to preserve our body is to see that it has broken down due to our preservation attempts. We can look at an unfortunate majority of professional athletes to see that extreme lifelong dedication to exercise is very likely to also include lifelong injuries/structural damage to the body along with it. Back to my own ‘addictive exercise’ patterns, I have personally felt unnecessary anxiety, self-deprecation, and guilt as a response to missing a day when in a high-octane regime, and just like any chemical that makes us feel good, we absolutely build tolerance to the neurotransmitters released in exercise, making us crave more and more. Though not formally ‘proven’, a compulsive or obsessive relationship with exercise can certainly create similar issues seen in addiction. Finally, exercise is also a breeding ground for body image issues and eating disorders due to stigma and pressure around the activity, and can, though counterintuitive, excessive exercise has actually shown to speed up the very things that people assume will be prevented such as aging concerns, body breakdown, and issues such as heart problems and diabetes.


TRY THIS: From the moderation angle, perhaps we should look at exercise more like eating: problematic to never do, but also problematic to do too much of. While everyone requires different levels of calories and gets them to work in uncountable amounts of differing ways, we all must find a healthy and sustainable balance to truly feel the full effect. As I am a therapist after all, extreme and “addictive” exercise patterns are also possible indicators of deeper psychological issues, so looking at motive behind such an intense approach may also be helpful in exploring whether someone is quite literally “running away from their problems” or just truly finds an increased quality of life from a more rigorous fitness cycle than the average.


Lastly, we can use the absolutely absurd routine of the adonis-looking Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson to highlight that extreme exercise routines that are actually effective require near full-lifestyle commitment to sustain: Johnson has reported that his routine happens 6 days a week and includes 3-4 50+ minute workout sessions per day rotating between parts of the body in the early morning, after breakfast, in the afternoon, and at night. While these results are physically very clear to anyone with sight, he must also eat up to 7 meals a day, totaling 4200 or more calories and including up to 36 ounces of fish and a dozen eggs in any given day. Sounds a bit too exhausting for me, and the fact that he has time to do anything else is genuinely impressive.


ATHLETES AND MENTAL HEALTH


A slight detour, but one small tidbit worthy of mention here would be how professional athletes themselves have, particularly recently, shown great examples of expressing not just how exercise and mental health are connected but also advocacy of addressing mental health in general. The direct analogy of working on oneself physically to create more advantages in getting around in life is clear, but the idea that these athletes still fall victim to the same mental issues as the rest of the population has also shown to be powerful. I myself may roll my eyes that headlines such as “athlete goes to therapy” or “athlete opens up about having anxiety” still present at the top of daily sports news pages as ‘breaking’ news, but I have to appreciate that this overreaction is also extremely helpful to raising awareness around the issue.


It is more and more common to see behaviors that were previously viewed under the toxically macho “get over it” treatment plan to be actually accommodated towards, as athletes have recently become more and more outspoken about struggles with anxiety, depression, and other internal challenges and have even been granted the equivalent of ‘mental health leave’ with mental conditions joining physical injuries as valid reasons to put a player on whatever version of an injured reserve that each league has. Situations that may have previously be seen as something to ‘tough out’, such as performance anxiety, injury recovery, and mental exhaustion are now seen as not only valid reasons for a player to stop and recover, but furthermore are seen (accurately, in my opinion) as barriers that can actually improve player performance overall should the be adequately managed.


Additionally, studies have shown more than double the prevalence of ADHD in professional athletes as well as a very heightened risk of eating disorders and burnout, which is not surprising in such competitive and cutthroat environments. It is a very progressive sign to see that professional athletes have taken moves towards mental health advocacy not just for heightened prevalence, but also when considering that their platform is one that had excessive stigmatization around the idea for a long time.



EXERCISE COMES IN ALL FORMS!

NOVEL IDEAS FOR EXERCISE


And finally, some actual suggestions for alternative exercise! While weightlifting, running, swimming, aerobics, and yoga are effective commonly suggested ideas, all of these hold heavy association with the most typical definition of ‘exercise’ and may suffer from this facet.


HIKING ACTUALLY BURNS 4 CALORIES A MINUTE, MAKING IT ONE OF THE BEST POSSIBLE FORMS OF EXERCISE: not only is hiking one of the most calorie-burning activities that we can do, it also can be done for long periods of time sustainably and does not have to feel intense whatsoever. The thousands of outside stimuli from a hike can be extremely distracting from noticing any pain or exhaustion that may be occurring to a hiker, and having a destination or goal such as going to the summit or seeing a cool environmental feature can also deter us from the boring and less-motivating end result of getting exercise.


CLIMBING IS THE MOST COMMON EXERCISE ACTIVITY OF MY CLIENTS (AND ADDS EXTRA CHALLENGES): climbing requires immense physical effort that can often be seen as rewarding from physical as well as emotional or cognitive viewpoints due to added rush of a more daunting environment and the technical strategies that many will take when climbing. The excitement and challenge of the environment seems to create a much larger motivator than many other forms of exercise.


RETURNING TO OUR CHILDHOOD: Exercise was surely easier when we were younger for many reasons that have become impractical as an adult, but some of our ‘workout routines’ from younger days might be more blocked by stigma than actual unreasonable factors. Whether it be dancing, hula hooping, jumping on a trampoline, gymnastics, or even just high-energy games, there is no reason to disallow ourselves from being playful and silly as it will be just as effective as a very directed and calculated approach to a strict workout regime.


GOING FAR FROM THE GYM: additionally, we can even take more ‘edgy’ approaches to exercise that may help to even further separate from our perception of something as rote physical exertion: activities such as pole dancing, martial arts/boxing, skiing/snowboarding, and similar activities are almost always seen for other predominant reasons rather than exercise, which may make fitness easier for some.


GETTING ON THE MOVE IN NEW WAYS: if hiking doesn’t quite do it for you, there are a myriad of other vehicles that require exercise to get into motion. Kayaking, zip lining, skateboarding, snowshoeing, standup paddle boarding and pretty much any other vessel that puts us into motion can often be overlooked as effective exercise methods.


HOT YOGA: technically cheating, but I would be remiss not to include the most powerful form of exercise I have personally experienced in hot yoga. The added heat creates more toxin removal via sweating and exertion, but the calm and steady movements through extreme environment has been the most consistent way I have found to attain the ‘runner’s high’ as well as some of the only times in life where I have reached a truly meditative state. If you find yourself getting distracted in yoga, hot yoga leaves very little room for any thoughts besides focus on the immediately present position.





CONCLUSION


Just taking a step outside will show us that almost every species on earth is continuously on the move and utilizing their physical attributes to thrive in any given environment, though we can be quick to forget that we operate from the same core. While certainly most of the population understands there are benefits and positive effects of exercising, elements of shame, hypercompetition, insecurity, and contrarianism to name a few seem to create an ample amount of resistance to something that most any human would benefit from in a myriad of ways. The idea of exercising to improve health is a wholesome and correct statement, but sometimes this perception and overemphasis on outward presentations of fitness can lead us further from remembering that the idea of exercise is actually to improve our own internal perceptions and emotions as well as better our own quality of life.


So in the end… there is certainly no new nor profound message in stating that exercise is good for humans. What may be more helpful in the long run is to look at exercise as something that we all will benefit from greatly once we discover how to make it work for us.



WHAT’S COOKING FOR NEXT MONTH

SELF CARE: TWO DREADED WORDS?

Next month we will finally get around to one of my few dreaded mental health buzz words in self care and what it ACTUALLY is– if there is a true definition.



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CONNECTED ROOTS


At Connected Roots, our three core pillars are connection, grounding, and confidence.


We share dedication to creating nonjudgmental and safe spaces where clients can

express themselves authentically and reach their goals.


For more information on Connected Roots or Nick Serro, please visit our website or contact us at 720-593-1062.


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