Exercise & Your Brain– And Your Thoughts, Too


People who follow this blog have already figured out that I’m a regular listener to NPR. In this case, I missed the story and a friend sent it, then it sat languishing in my unread e-mail for a while. But it’s too good not to pass on. Part of it includes a study that a group of young people who exercised apparently exercised their way completely out of depression. Wow. Cheaper than prozac and good for your heart. Another story I followed noted that in a study that tested the effectiveness of two fifteen minute walks versus one 30 minute walk, the beneficial effects of walking actually persisted longer after the walk was over when it came in two fifteen minute sessions.

But wait, there’s more! (and I’m not going to offer a special, limited time offer) There are angles here that go along with the psychological part of wellness. One of them is what we in the business call self-efficacy. What this is, essentially, is having the feeling that If I do something, it will work. The incontrovertible fact is that if I go for a walk, barring specific medical problems with feet, knees, etc., the walk will be good for me. So what I do, works. I can feel good about myself– and good in general– because I’m doing something that works. It’s also something that’s in my control. AND there’s another angle still– it’s the something beats nothing angle. What do I mean by this? Well, in cognitive therapy, it’s frequently seen that a person can get into black/white, all/nothing thinking, so that the person feels like, for example, if they can’t run a marathon, they’re a complete wimp and therefore there’s no point in exercising at all. Pretty extreme– and obviously so, because I picked it to be extreme and obvious. But many of us have other smaller, less obvious all/nothing traps we give in to. Well, in this case, there’s a body of physiological research the supports the idea that something beats nothing.

But wait, there’s still  more! There’s the special fun of internal locus of control!   It can be demoralizing to someone if they attribute all their problems to the external environment. The classic internal/external locus of control example is this: a person walking down the street slips on a banana peel and falls down. With external locus of control a person thinks, “Some idiot shouldn’t have dropped that there! It made me fall down!” With internal locus of control, the person thinks “I wasn’t watching where I was going and slipped.” In this case (and many others in life) each point of view holds some truth. The problem comes when we erroneously attribute too much externality or too much internality to a particular situation. Balance is usually needed, which is why so many 12-step meetings open with the Serenity Prayer. And, of course, you don’t need to be a 12-stepper to use it. You don’t even have to be religious– an atheist I used to know said he used it as an affirmation just by leaving off the first word.

But to re-focus on the exercise and feeling better angle– for most of us, going for a walk (or other moderate exercise) is very largely under internal control. So we can use it to boost our sense of self-efficacy, battle all-or-nothing thinking, feel more physically healthy, and boost our appropriate sense of internal locus of control over our health and well-being. Just remember that a journey of a thousand miles begins with looking under the bed for your shoes.



About jamesmatter

Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT) in private practice in San Francisco. I work with adults, adolescents, and couples, with focus on substance use and abuse and co-occurring disorders (having both a mental illness and an addiction).
This entry was posted in behavioral health, change, choices, Couples and relationships, physical health, physical health, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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