Cover Story

When APA's Raymond D. Fowler, PhD, started running 22 years ago, the energetic CEO was a self-described workaholic who had a hard time relaxing and sleeping--"a typical 2-7 profile on the MMPI, with a slight elevation on scale 9," he jokes.

Fowler, now 71, soon became a running junkie, acing 15 marathons and forming an APA group called the Running Psychologists. More than these accomplishments, though, Fowler says the activity has made him healthier, calmer and happier. For one thing, he met his wife Sandy through the APA runners' group.

"Who says running doesn't change your life?" he chuckles.

Indeed, if there's one form of self-care that psychologists should place at the top of their lists, it's exercise. Research on the topic overwhelmingly points to its physical and mental benefits: Not only does regular exercise improve physical problems such as high cholesterol, diabetes and high blood pressure, but it has distinct mood and cognitive advantages as well, including an ability to boost higher-level thinking and to combat depression and anxiety.

A recent study by Duke University researchers Michael Babyak, PhD, James Blumenthal, PhD, and colleagues, is a case in point. It found that patients with major depression randomized to an exercise group had declines in depression equal to those of a group that received antidepressants. Moreover, the exercisers were less likely than the medication group to relapse six months after treatment, and patients who maintained exercise during follow-up were 50 percent less likely to become depressed than those who didn't exercise.

"This is a terribly important finding, because in addition to the well-known physical benefits of regular exercise, our results suggest that exercise may be a very effective way of preventing depression in susceptible people," Blumenthal says.

Just as remarkable as the benefits of exercise is the fact that most people don't take advantage of it. Data from the National Center for Health Statistics indicate that a mere 25 percent of Americans are physically active, while only 10 percent are active enough to achieve fitness gains.

Whether you're an exercise buff or not, however, there's a wealth of data to help you get hooked or support your efforts if you're already making them. Here are some pointers from colleagues who study and apply these findings in their work and lives:

Make it purposeful. In a 2001 article in the journal Quest (Vol. 53, No. 3), University of Wisconsin-Madison exercise researcher William Morgan, PhD, makes a case for "Factor P"--putting the purpose back into exercise. In Morgan's view, society lost many natural forms of exercise, like farming, when it changed from a manual to a more automated culture. He contends that by hooking our exercise back into meaningful activities like walking the dog, biking to work or building a stone wall, we can rediscover the advantages of that bygone lifestyle. "People give all sorts of reasons for not wanting to exercise, such as lack of time, but I think the real reason is that they don't want to do pointless, nonpurposeful things like running on a treadmill," Morgan says.

Use cognitive techniques. One of the greatest obstacles to exercise is not people's intentions, but their ability to enact them, notes Robert Thayer, PhD, a veteran exercise researcher at the University of California at Long Beach. There are a couple of ways to combat this common problem, he says. One relates to the flexibility issue: Start small. "If you think to yourself, 'I'm just going to walk 30 seconds,' when you begin to move, your body will get into it to some extent and you'll begin to feel like walking another 30 seconds or another minute," he says.

Another strategy is to apply what he calls "cognitive override." This simply means remembering what you already know about the benefits of exercise, then putting it into action. For instance, his research shows that a brisk 10-minute walk gives you more energy in the long term than a candy bar. Literally, use such information to take the next step, he advises.

Make exercise a regular part of your life. Schedule exercise just as you do your work and social activities, advises John Silva, PhD, a professor of sport psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC). "Some people have found it convenient to hold that time constant," he says. The benefits can be more than physical, sports psychologists add: Simply sticking with something you feel benefits you physically and mentally is intrinsically rewarding.

Be flexible. As important as regular exercise is, schedule it in a flexible way, sport psychologists add. If you only have five minutes, do some stretches. If your lunch break is 45 minutes, grab a sandwich, then walk around your building a few times. Use what's available to you and the time you have, rather than rigidly focusing on getting in an hour's run every day, they say.

Exercise researcher Andy Meyers, PhD, chair of the psychology department at the University of Memphis, says he and his wife Lee learned how to make such an exercise transition 12 years ago. Meyers, then 40, was just hitting his stride as a triathlete when he and his wife adopted their son. "I realized I was never going to be able to train adequately to do triathalons, do my job well and be a good parent," he says. "Now, I do whatever is most convenient--running for half an hour, or swimming on my lunch break."

Make it fun. Whether you prefer intense weight-lifting or tranquil walks, do something you enjoy. "What you need is the form of exercise that you experience as so satisfying that the issue of motivation drops out," says Div. 47 (Exercise and Sport) President Kate Hays, PhD, author of a new popular book on exercise, "Move Your Body, Tone Your Mind" (2002, New Harbinger) and a book for psychologists, "Working it Out: Using Exercise in Psychotherapy" (APA, 1999).

Exercise with others. Studies consistently show that people feel better and are more likely to stick with exercise if they buddy up with others. "If you can involve other people, the social benefits are fantastic," says UNC's Silva. He practices what he preaches, building into his schedule regular dates with friends to run and play racquetball. Many exercise buddies, of course, will be family members. Research supports the positive side of this, too: Spousal support has been shown to enhance the likelihood you'll exercise and stick with it, says Silva.

If you're older, start gradually. Older psychologists who haven't exercised much before should "pick something they like, start slowly and gradually increase it," says Silva. On the other hand, older athletes must eventually do more than they did when they were younger to reap positive effects, says Thayer. "Instead of the usual practice of exercising less as you get older, I actually recommend exercising more," he says.

Commit to the long haul. Finally, it's vital to think of exercise as a life-long enterprise, says Morgan, or else you won't achieve its benefits. Studies by the late exercise physiologist Michael Pollock, PhD, underscore this point. They show a dose-response relationship between exercise and health benefits: The more you exercise up to a certain point, Pollock found, the better you score on such health indicators as heart rate, cholesterol levels and weight.

"Running on a treadmill will not improve your health today, tomorrow or next week," Morgan tells participants in lectures on exercise. "Sure, it can eventually improve your depression and anxiety and body weight and body fat and improve your cardiovascular fitness, but that occurs long after most people quit exercising."

In a more metaphysical way, involving your children in exercise can keep the healthy tradition of exercise alive for the future, those involved add.

"We all know about the epidemic of childhood obesity," comments Trent Petrie, PhD, who directs the Center for Sport Psychology and Performance Excellence at the University of North Texas. "I want my children, who are just getting involved in sports, to see regular exercise as a model for how they can be throughout their lives. I'd like them to see that being active is a real way that people live."

Tori DeAngelis is a writer in Syracuse, N.Y.

Further reading

  • Babyak, M., et al. (2000). Exercise treatment for major depression: maintenance of therapeutic benefit at 10 months. Psychosomatic Medicine, 62, 633-638.

  • Georgiades, A., Sherwood, A., et al. (2000). Effects of exercise and weight loss on mental stress-induced cardiovascular responses in individuals with high blood pressure. Hypertension, 36, 171-176.

  • Hays, K. (1999). Working It Out: Using Exercise in Psychotherapy. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

  • Hays, K. (2002). Move Your Body, Tone Your Mood. Oakland, Calif.: New Harbinger.

  • Khatri, P., Blumenthal, J.A., et al. (2001). Effects of exercise training on cognitive functioning among depressed older men and women. Journal of Aging and Physical Activity, 9, 43-57.

  • Kramer, A.F., Hahn, S., et al. (1999). Aging, fitness, and neurocognitive function. Nature, 400, 418-419.

  • Morgan, W. (2001). Prescription of physical activity: a paradigm shift. Quest, 53, 366-382.

  • Steffen, P.R., Sherwood, A., et al. (2001). Effects of exercise and weight loss on blood pressure during daily life. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 33, 1635-1640.

  • Thayer, R. (2001). Calm Energy: How People Regulate Mood with Food and Exercise. New York: Oxford University Press.