Mental Health and Exercise: It’s Science (Guest Post)

I attended a workshop this past week headlined by Dr. John Arden, a Psychologist and author. His regular folk friendly book is called Rewire Your Brain (Arden, J. B. (2010). Rewire your brain: Think your way to a better life. John Wiley & Sons.). In it you will find all sorts of interesting things about brain anatomy, neurochemistry and the oft referred to “brain plasticity” that is all the rage in much of the literature on changing behaviours or understanding why behaviours may be hard to change.

There was a lot about the workshop I liked and a little chunk I hated. I will get that chunk out of the way first because it’s relevant to the blog and then move on to the things I liked that are also relevant to everyone.

Brain health, mental health and physical health are all related (no surprise here). He spent a lot of the time explaining the importance of “neurogenesis” which is essentially the production of new connections in the brain. Making new connections, especially in the front part of the brain and the parts of the brain important in regulating stress, contributes hugely to resiliency in mental health. His position is that without a functioning capacity to create these connections, people have a very much harder time recovering from stress and trauma, leading to various anxiety mediated and mood disorders.

So what inhibits neurogenesis? Aging, Chronically high cortisol, Pot and Obesity. 

What promotes it? Excercise, Fasting, Fewer calories consumed, Food Quality (especially the presence of high quality Omega 3) and Weight loss.

Sigh. What is wrong with this list? He didn’t highlight the studies that he based this stuff on but I did pay very close attention to how he talked about these things. The thing that made me very miffed was his constant and consistent conflation of “Obesity” with lack of exercise and poor food choices. He went on for a while about the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines by fat cells and talked about metabolic syndrome. It is believed that these chemicals are a big part of why our moods go to hell when we are chronically stressed and not doing enough good things for the body. The articles you see about depression really being about inflammation are based on this science. These are medical facts. But he basically said “tell your clients they have to lose weight to get better”. Great, a prescription with a 95% failure rate. Set ’em up for failure, I’m in. He didn’t acknowledge that BMI measurements of obesity often don’t mean squat. He didn’t acknowledge that fat people can be fit and lacking any other markers of metabolic syndrome. He even said (astoundingly) that if you are going to put on weight, you should put it on as a pear shape instead of apple, as if this is a conscious choice. I was so angry at this point I couldn’t speak. And what made me angrier was the fact that he was clearly  utterly well meaning and a victim of the blank spots in his particular silo of knowledge. ON TOP OF THAT, he was talking to an audience of mostly women.*FEMINIST HULK SMASH*

Okay, enough of that. The good news here, however, was the reiteration of the connection of exercise with improved mental health outcomes. Exercise has been shown to have epigenetic effects on the brain, which means it promotes turning on gene expressions related to nuero-plasticity. It promotes the production of various growth factors in the brain which means more connections are formed. It promotes activity between those connections and, in a fairly dumbed down nutshell, the activity (especially in the left frontal cortex) allows for better mood, learning and adaptivity to adversity. Basically, it’s magic.

However, it is important to note that, like all magic, initiating it requires a clear intent. Lots of my clients tell me they exercise and nothing happens. They do not magically feel less depressed or anxious. That is because exercise is really good at creating optimal conditions for changes but if you just go brood about all the stuff you usually brood about or, more realistically, go back to your dysfunctional life and relationships without questioning them, it’s still hard to change. The role of therapy is to help people change both their physical condition (by encouraging more self care through movement, better quality food and sleep) and to help people reframe their understanding of what is happening relationally in their lives. Sometimes that reframing can be a challenge to a singular poor relationship. Sometimes it can be a more daunting challenge to a systemic adversity that blocks them in the form of racism, class inequality or sexism to name merely a sliver. I understand better than ever how these things work together now.

I wrote a sternly worded evaluation that took up the whole back page regarding my critique of the way he flung the word “obesity” around like we all knew what we were talking about. I hope he takes it to heart.

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Food, Sleep, and Exercise. Keep your brain happy!

About Susan Tarshis

I am a full time Psychotherapist practicing in Milton, Ontario. From time to time, I post thoughts about my practice and the human condition to my own blog but mostly, I'm a regular contributor to my friends' blog (Fit is a Feminist Issue). . .because that's more fun.

6 thoughts on “Mental Health and Exercise: It’s Science (Guest Post)

  1. Jenny-Anne Jett says:

    I love your blog!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Lovey says:

    I admire whatever you write.

    Like

  3. Sam B says:

    Absolutely hate, and you know this, the conflation of obesity with lack of exercise. ARGH! I mean, I also hate the demonization of fat bodies whether or not those bodies exercise. ARGH. Feminist hulk smash is just right.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. ainsobriety says:

    I am average weight, exercise regularly and still deal with depression and generalized anxiety disorder.
    Is the prescription of weight loss, which is extremely difficult and complicated, might not even pay off.

    That’s even harder to accept.

    Like

    • You aren’t alone in that experience. So first of all, losing weight if you are already “average” doesn’t have an effect according to the data I got earlier in the week. Secondly, one of the real problems with going from a generalized result to specific curcumstances it is misses the reality, that people are very complex and very individual. You can collect all the data in the world and show very strong trends but it doesn’t mean it applies to everyone. I hope you keep working towards the things that do help, whatever they are for you.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. bscritic says:

    Thanks for clarifying and correcting some important information. Even good science can be over generalized and misinterpreted. I really loved your next to last paragraph. People are very complex and rarely fit into a workshop treatment manual. What we do as mental health professionals is never as simplistic as workshop presenters make it seem. Thanks for winnowing the helpful information from the unhelpful.

    Like

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