Some ‘Exercise for Mental Health!’ Headscratching

[CN: Brief mention of eating disorders, exercise for weight loss]

“Even a little bit of exercise can improve mental functioning!” 

The little display-quotes at the top of Psychology Today’s page always make me a touch antsy. The thing about writing popular psychology is that you want to to actually be popular, and “well, we tested this on college students, and in at least this one iteration of the research, it seems like mayyyybe there’s a relationship between This One Cool Trick and increased performance on IQ tests”  has far too many caveats to make for a headline. So we assure you that doing ten jumping jacks before bed will make you pass your math test, and the things we’re a little more certain about get less fanfare.

(In the spirit of fixing that, look at this, it seems pretty conclusive that narcolepsy is the result of an autoimmune response to hypocretin neurons. This doesn’t sound very exciting, but is actually worth at least three large headlines.)

But I’m stuck on a bus, and I started thinking about that claim. A little bit of exercise? I mean, I usually feel better for going for a walk, but I’ve never thought that’s a direct result of exercise. More like inevitable results of the interplay of being away from a to-do list, trading fluorescent light for natural light, and stomping around in the snow. Sure, there’s some very basic cardio happening, but I live in the Midwest, the flattest of flatlands.

…which also got me thinking about how I’ll avoid exercising when I’m having especially bad brain days. There’s significant amounts of societal pressure to exercise–to not just be slim but toned and fit and lean–and heading to the gym uniquely taps into a whole host of too-positive feelings about potentially losing weight and fitting into beauty norms.  When you add jerkbrain, then BAM sudden impulses towards obsessive exercising! So I stay away on bad days, and on the good I try to aim my happiness about exercise in the direction of appreciation for strength and endurance building, rather than skinniness.

Which led me to The Hunch*:

It seems unlikely–possible, but unlikely–that exercising briefly is dramatically changing brain chemistry. It seems to improve functioning in moderate depression. It usually improves circulation, which does nice things all over your body. But it also plays into norms about how being a good person means having a gym membership and being healthy (in the colloquial, appearance-based sense).

If we’re going to take the Psych Today quote at face value**–and I’ve been writing on a bumpy bus just so we can–then what if the improvement from just a little exercising is less a function of the actual motions of moving your body, and more to do with the rewards of doing something we’ve been conditioned to associate with being a good person? Sure, there are copious benefits resulting from the exercise -> [mysterious*** brain changes] -> better mental and physical health pathway. But getting them from brief exercise? Seems more plausible that there’s a boost in mood and functioning from doing a societally rewarded action. (“I’m doing a good thing! I am a responsible person!”)

By all means, were this to be correct (and see the part about it being a hunch) this would not be a reason to stop exercising! In fact, it might be a better reason to exercise than ever. Taking advantage of brain quirks, or placebo effects generally, to improve your life is still improving your life.


*I mean it. This is a hunch. Somewhat more than a wild guess, but only because I think “studies this stuff for fun and a diploma” counts for more than Wild Guesser status.

**Also, I’m disinclined to think that it was entirely made up. There’s likely at least one study suggesting this conclusion.

***Not so mysterious, but if I’m going to be hunch-ing, I’d rather not shoot myself in the foot by also demonstrating a poor grasp of neuroscience.


  1. says

    It seems pretty conclusive that narcolepsy is the result of an autoimmune response to hypocretin neurons. This doesn’t sound very exciting, but is actually worth at least three large headlines.

    Woah. That is exciting.

  2. Ysanne says

    Good point with the socially rewarded “I’m exercising and therefore a good person” feelings.
    Starting from this

    But it also plays into norms about how being a good person means having a gym membership and being healthy (in the colloquial, appearance-based sense).

    I’d also add: If your exercise happens to be something you do outdoors, like running, cycling (to work possibly), doing a bit of bodyweight training in a park, or possibly something you actually do just for fun, that’s pretty sure to be good for mental functioning just by getting some natural light plus fresh air while doing something that’s probably more enjoyable than working.

  3. says

    Oh, I actually know that I feel much better when I can exercise, physically and mentally.
    But I wonder if those people ever think about the effect all those “exercise!!!!” apeals have on people who struggle with mental health issues while running on a tight schedule?
    Because what I seriously don’t need is more people trying to guilt-trip me for something else I failed to do.
    Like exercising, like cooking “light meals”, like losing weight (yep, I also know I’m happier when I’m not obese), going vegetarian/vegan/whatever.
    Some days the only thing I can look forward to is sitting in my arnmchair and having a pizza. Thank you, all the people who want to take that away from me and who want to make me feel bad about this.
    I’m sick and tired of this.

  4. Onamission5 says

    Spouse gets hintful about the exercise thing from time to time. I finally got him to stop with talking up the gym when I spelled it out plainly that I do not need strangers coming up to me and demonstrating their approval that I am using an elliptical as if it is the first time that has ever happened, nor do I need the displays of concern about how red my face gets, nor does the constant low background hum of potential sexual harassment or the competitive environment do a thing for my sense of wellbeing. Sure, I could go out and power walk down the street, but I am not terribly keen on being stared or whooped at by the occupants of passing cars, either.

    And I do feel moderately better physically from exercise, but it’s a trade off for a sense of constantly being evaluated and graded by the general public for my efforts. It’s a trade off for the nattering voice of an acquaintance long removed that tells me I’d be so much prettier if I just exercised once in a while (at the time I took vigorous walks daily), and high school boys telling me that my sports training class wasn’t working because it hadn’t made my ass any smaller. In a world like the one Spouse lives in, where the only thing I had to deal with was whether or not I enjoyed a particular form of exercise, I’d probably be able to shore myself up and do it a lot more often, but that isn’t the only thing I have to deal with.

  5. HappiestSadist, Repellent Little Martyr says

    For me, exercise is things like walking around outside, or stretching/yoga stuff in the living room. The idea of gyms sets off my jerkbrain immensely. But I do feel better when I move around physically, though it’s not stuff that would be socially counted as ExerciseTM.

  6. kimzsendai says

    I agree that the headline does sound suspicious, 10 jumping jacks done once is likely going to do little for serious depression. However even a little bit of mild exercise performed regularly (like taking a pill at the same time every day), might be the equivalent of some small quanta of medication, depending on what works for your depression.

    My experience with this disease is both anecdotal and vicarious. I have both a mother and a sister diagnosed with clinical depression. My sister ‘self-medicates’ by going on multi-hour walks. She has found that through doing this she can reduce the quantity of doctor-proscribed anti-depressants she takes (and thus reduce the side-effects she experiences). However, the same technique doesn’t seem to work for everyone.

  7. artbalthazar says

    Honestly, I think of “exercise” like any other hobby: if its something you enjoy doing anyway ( and some people enjoy various forms of exercise way more than others) and its something that makes you happy, then making a point of doing it as a form of treating yourself well can help improve your mood. But forcing yourself to do something you actively hate doing likely isn’t going to make you feel better. When I was really struggling with depression in my last year of university and first year after graduation I would go to the gym ( which I had previously enjoyed doing!) and look at the equipment and go cry in the bathroom. Or have to get off whatever equipment I was using. Or whatever. And that was hardly productive, nor was my then-boyfriend not-so-subtly guilting me for not exercising.

    Personally I think the focus on exercise as a cure for depression/anxiety is simplistic; I think a lot of the benefit many people derive from “exercise” is the change in scenery, as you’ve mentioned the natural lig and socialhapproval, t, the social component, the structure and/or the break to damaging or circular thoughts from focusing intensn something else. The increased circulation and better sleep are nice but by no means are any of these effects exclusive to “exercise”.

    Important to note here my above comments are based solely in my own experience and my observations of people in my life who have struggled with depression not any rigorous scientific review or professional expertise.

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