Why I Think Exercise is Bad for You

by Paul Cullen, Ph.D. on February 27, 2013

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I am probably the only mental health professional in the world who is going to tell you exercise is bad for you, but hear me out. Last year I attended a workshop on the neuroscience of depression. I was impressed by the latest fMRI and PET scans presented showing changes in the brain following treatment. The esteemed presenter used this information to suggest carefully considered psychotherapy strategies. But then he went on to share a list of recommendations (backed up by the neuroscience) for patients suffering from depression: avoid drugs, alcohol and caffeine; eat a careful diet; sleep and wake at the same time every day; exercise once a day; practice mindfulness exercises and keep a daily journal. My ears pricked up and I looked around the room and to my surprise everyone was nodding in agreement. I put up my hand up and said to the presenter, “If I did all those things I’d be depressed too”, which was followed by boos and jeers from the audience.

If you can’t have a cup of coffee and a slice of cake with a friend, stay out at night and enjoy a rich Indian meal and a glass of red, and you’re too busy to anyway because you’re exercising and mindfully meditating, what’s the point?

Exercise, The Good

The biggest benefit of exercise is that it increases cortical blood flow. This means blood is flowing to the ‘smart brain’ instead of the ‘impulsive brain’ which is involved in stress, anxiety and depression. It also releases feel good chemicals (endorphins) and burns up the stress hormone cortisol. The reduced cortisol also helps a key molecule (BDNF) function which is involved in helping your brain re-wire itself (neuroplasticity). Consequently, studies show that regular exercise can result in a 50% reduction in the symptoms of depression. Other potential benefits can be weight control, increase in self-esteem and confidence and sometimes opportunities for social interaction. These studies suggest aerobic and strength training exercises 5-7 times a week for at least 45 min at an intensity which corresponds to sufficient changes in your breathing to make it difficult to talk. If you’ve ever suffered from serious depression you’ll know what a big ask that is (if not impossible).

Exercise, The Bad

OK, let’s pretend the above regimen is possible -so what’s my problem with it? I don’t have a problem with it per se, my beef is that simply exercising is not a sufficient alternative to dealing with the root cause of the problem. People can and do use exercise as a kind of sedative that allows them to tolerate bad situations longer.

When we are prevented from achieving a goal (something we need or want) we feel frustration and sometimes anger. When we are fearful or under stress we feel anxiety and if the stress or fear is prolonged we can develop depression. Frustration, anger and anxiety all result in physiological arousal – your body literally ramps up for action. This energy is meant to be used to change something in your situation or to remove yourself from the situation. If instead we use that energy to jog around in circles or repeatedly pick up heavy objects and put them back down again, then we are not using that energy to help change our life situation. Exercise is performed instead of a relevant action and is thus a ‘displacement activity’.

Using exercise as a displacement activity has serious consequences. For example, when exercise is used as a displacement activity, people’s frustration at a dehumanising workplace is not mobilised to protest against the working conditions or to leave the job. Problems in relationships with partners and families remain unaddressed while the frustration or anxiety is burnt off at the gym. Feelings of loneliness are warded off by putting miles on the road. Grief is cast aside to pick up a set of dumbbells.

What other problems do I see with exercise? In my opinion, many people overdo exercise which has negative consequences. They don’t engage in a gentle walk after dinner but train for a gruelling 42km run. Exercising so intensely can cause injuries. In fact some individuals use exercise as a form of masochistic self-punishment. Many forms of exercise are solitary and people may spend many hours engaged in them, depriving them of healthy social contact and support. Exercise can also become an obsession and can even become an addiction in which people become dependent on a sense of euphoria and experience withdrawal and anxiety if they are unable to exercise. New conditions are being recognised such as musclerexia (muscle dysmorphia) and the use of performance enhancers such as anabolic steroids and growth hormone by non-professional athletes is on the rise.

Summary

When it comes to dealing with mental health problems and physical wellbeing the verdict is in on its positive effects. As a counsellor and psychotherapist I am concerned that the ‘directive to exercise’ being driven by the medical establishment and the media has negative consequences. Exercising serves as a displacement activity that directs people’s energy away from making changes in their lives and communities and thereby serves to pacify the populace.

Agree or disagree? I’d like to hear your thoughts in the comments section.

The team at Paul the Counsellor provides counselling and psychotherapy to individuals and couples in the Melbourne CBD.

0458 090 687
paulthecounsellor@gmail.com
253 Lonsdale St, Melbourne VIC 3000

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Duncan February 27, 2013 at 2:24 PM

Very interesting
I agree, exercise can be an addiction, yielding endorphins and hollow self-esteem boots just like any drug addiction, when taken to the extreme.

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Paul Cullen, Ph.D. February 27, 2013 at 2:30 PM

Thanks for chiming in Duncan. Much appreciated.

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Raphael Bender February 27, 2013 at 7:53 PM

You do raise a good point Paul, with regard to 45 minutes of exercise daily being an unrealistic ask of someone who is depressed, I agree with you there.

I also take your point about the lack of joy inherent in a spartan lifestyle. Although self-discipline does have it’s own rewards in terms of self-esteem.

However you’ve neglected to address two critical points. Your point about exercise as a displacement activity presupposes that there is a ‘deep’ or ‘real’ cause of depression. This may well be the case for some people who have lived through traumatic events or experienced suffering, but it is also the case that being overweight, unfit and unhealthy is enough to make someone depressed. I’m pretty confident that if forced to watch copious amounts of daytime telly, smoke a pack a day, eat home brand fish fingers for dinner and never exercise, most people would feel pretty horrible before long. So what comes first, the chicken or the egg?

The second point you’ve neglected to address, which I would imagine you would address as a matter of course with your clients, is that behaviour change usually takes time, and is a gradual process. So of course we won’t be enjoining someone with clinical depression to start exercising vigorously 45 minutes each day. The approach to establishing positive behaviour change around exercise that has been shown to be effective in the literature includes a combination of gradual progression, managing expectations and effective goal setting that is appropriate to the individual’s current state.

I do agree with you that exercise can be problematic in the extreme, and can be used as a displacement behaviour, but your comments could easily be misconstrued and taken out of context by those without direct access to the research, and thus are somewhat irresponsible. Overall I think it’s fair to say that as a nation, we exercise too little, rather than the reverse.

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Paul Cullen, Ph.D. February 27, 2013 at 8:08 PM

Hello Raphael. Thanks for stopping by and reading the blog. I appreciate your critical evaluation. My critique of the mandate to exercise is not specifically regarding depression. Your first point re the fish fingers and daytime TV poses an interesting question. Would people who feel pretty good to begin with subject themselves to fish fingers and Oprah Winfrey? Tongue in cheek, I suspect not. Your second point is fair and accurate, but again this article is largely directed at people without any mental health issues.

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Shaynee February 28, 2013 at 3:03 PM

Dear Paul,
I agree with a lot of this article and the living proof of it is the term ” Gym Junkie “. Linguistics are very much alive, the fact that this term has evolved emphasises the addictive result s of obsessive exercising. Like you I agree that that gentle exercise is good in healthy moderation. Many surgeons are advocating a walk as opposed to many of the extreme exercise regimes that people become involved in and often result in injury, causing more misery.. Do something you enjoy! There’s a good chance that will improve your frame of mind more than the aches , sweats and non communicative activity that accompanies harsh, compulsive exercise regimes. Take time to smell the flowers and watch a beautiful sunset.

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Brad March 1, 2013 at 5:01 PM

Hi Paul,

I think Raphael’s criticisms are worth heeding but my own experience is an example of the very thing you warn against in your article. I thoroughly enjoy going to the gym. I don’t work out to excess. I generally hav a testing but reasonable regime. The problem is that so often the gym acts as a relief on symptoms of anxiety. That is to say the endorphin kick means I relax to the point where the anxiety is not hindering me from going about my every day life. The root cause is not necessarily being a addressed. I have given a simplistic snap shot of my life but it certainly pays to not take entreaties to exercise as a bulwark against poor mental health as a given.

By the way, did a group of mental health professionals really jeer and boo you?!

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Paul Cullen, Ph.D. March 1, 2013 at 5:10 PM

Thanks for stopping by Brad. Yes, much to my surprise, I was booed and jeered by mental health professionals. It’s great to hear your experience that exercise is a helpful coping strategy, but not an answer unto itself.

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David Ferguson March 16, 2013 at 5:00 PM

I think 15-30 minutes of healthy exercise daily is very good for mental health. Sure, it isn’t a cure for many mental health disorders but, if kept up, light exercise can lead to higher levels of motivation an esteem as well as a belief that one can take on, and succeed in new challenges.

Very interesting article.

Cheers,

David

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Paul Cullen, Ph.D. March 16, 2013 at 6:20 PM

Hi David. Thanks for stopping by. I don’t think 15-30 min is a bad thing either as long as the underlying problems are tackled too.

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David Ferguson March 16, 2013 at 6:33 PM

Absolutely.
Cheers,
David

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Fiona Claire April 20, 2013 at 3:34 PM

Hi Paul, I love your article, especially the bit about jogging round in circles and picking up heavy objects. I often wonder at the room full of people when I am at the gym and what our world could be like if we exerted such energy in actually doing useful tasks – such as picking up rubbish or helping elderly people grow vegetables. I know I’m idealist but I feel these are important philosophical issues. And I suspect that a good deal of the depression that exists in our lucky and safe society is due to a denial of that chance to have real philosophical reflection and meaningful activity. I also hear from many people obsessed with exercise in my eating disorder work and really have to wonder at a society that sees so many hours engaged in random, solitary activity as worthy of admiration. There is a very strong medicalised overview of mental health, food and exercise which seems to be unassailable and to me it comes across as quite dogmatic and narrow minded. You’ve got me on my soapbox now! I recommend the song by Clare Bowditch “Running” off her Modern Day Addiction album which at least shows that we are not alone and perhaps questioning of these ideas are growing!

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Paul Cullen, Ph.D. April 20, 2013 at 4:18 PM

Hello Fiona. Thanks for the comment. I just checked out your website and saw that you’re a counsellor too and close by in Northcote. I see you use expressive modalities such as singing as part of your work which is fantastic. I think creative pursuits are integrating and ultimately healing and sometimes take us places words cannot. I’m a fan of Clare Bowditch myself. I look forward to crossing paths sometime.

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Fiona Claire April 20, 2013 at 4:23 PM

Thanks Paul, yes expressive modalities are awesome, especially when we have thought ourselves into a corner. We may well cross paths :)

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Guna Green November 15, 2013 at 1:58 PM

Hi Paul, I’ve been enjoying your blogs, and thanks for providing for participation.

Your take on exercise reminds me of the stories that circulated, many years ago, of large companies that had a “let-off-steam” room where employees could go if they were dissatisfied with their situation, and punch an effigy of the boss. This enabled the people to let off steam and so maintain the continuing function of business. (i.e. nothing changed.)
On the flipside, I think it’s a pity we don’t allow ourselves the luxury of boredom these days. To sit and stay with boredom, without reaching for distractions, long enough to finally arrive at that magical place where we might just encounter … ourselves.

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