Psychological Benefits of Working Out

I know I write A LOT (a lot, a lot) about food and why it’s important to fuel your body with healthy choices, but I want to switch it up this week and talk about another main component of healthy living and that is EXERCISE! Although it's generally believed that exercise makes you happier and healthier, I wanted to talk about why and how.

I had a wonderful professor in 2016 named Jeannette Benson who taught Social Motivation (one the best classes I’ve ever taken). In this class, one of the topics was positive psychology, which studies how to make humans happier, better, and more successful. Pretty great topic, right? One class we learned about a study that showed the relationship between physical activity and depression, and how exercise may be a realistic therapy for people with Major Depressive Disorder (MDD). A study by Michael Babyak et al. in 2000 demonstrated that long term exercise is associated with lower rates of depression!

This is the gist of the study:

Volunteer participants with MDD were divided into three therapy groups: aerobic exercise, medication, or exercise and medication. Each group used the suggested therapy for 4 months. What were the results? Immediately following the 4 months, all groups improved! At this point, between 60-68% of all participants no longer met the DSM-IV requirements for MDD.

More interest was that six months after the four-month trial, the team found that those in the exercise group were “more likely … to be partially or fully recovered [from MDD].” They added, “only 8% of remitted patients in the exercise group had relapsed,” this is compared to 31-38% in the other groups (Baybak 635), proposing that in this group of participants, exercise was a realistic (and must less expensive) therapy for depression.

The study also notes that exercise can cause "the development of a sense of personal mastery and positive self-regard." Exercise can boost our self esteem, and is a great reason to mix in some aerobic exercise to your fitness routine.  

In addition to aerobic exercise, it seems that exercising outside has further psychological advantages. In Kate Hudson’s book, Pretty Happy, she quotes Tina Vindum, a former Olympic athlete and fitness trainer, who has researched outdoor exercise and its benefits. An excerpt states: "Levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate our mood, rise when we are outside. A study at the University of Queensland found that regular outdoor runners were less anxious and depressed than people who ran indoors … and had higher levels of post-exercise endorphins." In the same book, Frances Kuo, from the University of Illinois, is also cited saying that, "Being in nature reduces stress-related anger and enhances sociability." These are some fun facts that can help you decide to get off the couch and get outside! I know Kate Hudson isn’t a trainer or psychologist but she is citing people who know what they are talking about and she herself promotes healthy living.

For beginners, try simply taking a walk around the neighbourhood, or walking places instead of driving! These small steps can provide psychological benefits and boost your mood. Think of these changes to your routine as the ultimate proactive tool for self-care.

Back to Professor Benson’s positive psychology lecture! In class she quoted John J. Ratey on one of her slides. Ratey, of Harvard Medical School, is the author of multiple books and papers on ADHD. The quote said “In a way, exercise can be thought of as a psychiatrist’s dream treatment. It works on anxiety, panic disorders, and on stress in general, which has a lot to do with depression … Having a bout of exercise is like taking a little bit of Prozac and a little bit of Ritalin, right where it is supposed to go.” Talk about a cure-all!

Get out, get moving … and as always, don’t forget to make healthy food choices!

You can read Babyak's study here.


Sources: Cover, 1, 2, 3, 4