Feature

A lunch-time bicycle ride in the Appalachian foothills almost cost Rosemary Schwartzbard, PhD, more than just sore muscles. Two close friends who joined her-thinking they were in for a leisurely afternoon ride- did not share Schwartzbard's enjoyment of the intense workout.

"We stopped about halfway through and they wouldn't talk to me!" she recalls. "They won't let me plan outings anymore."

As a clinical psychologist, Schwartzbard may not require her clients to become triathlon competitors like herself, but she does get them moving. And along with two other Washington, D.C.-area practitioners, she's using her expertise as a licensed personal trainer to prod other psychologists and their clients from the couch as well.

Finding fitness

A future Appalachian bike ride may best be saved for Schwartzbard's next outing with fellow practitioners and fitness buffs Suanne Shocket, PsyD, and Helen Epps, PhD. In April, the three friends presented a Virginia Psychological Association workshop on the benefits of exercise to mental health.

Fitness, however, was not always a top priority for these three. It took a divorce to spur Shocket to turn a casual interest in exercise into a way of life.

"I started running regularly as a way to manage my emotions and feel like I was in control of my life," says Shocket, now president of Running Psychologists, a section within Div. 47 (Exercise and Sport).

For Epps, seeing her formerly independent mother struggle to get around after a debilitating illness inspired her to take matters into her own hands and work with her mother daily on rebuilding her strength.

"I brought her back to D.C. with me and told her I'd take her home when she could walk three miles," she recalls.

That experience inspired Epps, a lifelong athlete, to pursue her certification in personal training.

Today, these three psychologists exercise daily, and encourage their therapy clients to do the same. They ask questions about a client's physical activity level and exercise routine during their intake session interview, and begin introducing clients to how physical fitness and exercise can help achieve therapy goals, such as transitioning off antidepressants, or losing weight.

"The thing I often tell people is that we have research now that exercise is as good as medication in treating mild to moderate depression and anxiety," says Epps.

These efforts often pay off, they say. For example, Shocket worked with one sedentary client suffering from depression and anxiety to develop a walking program, building in increasing mileage goals along the way to help the client stay motivated. In the end, the client signed up for a two-day, 39-mile charity walk. The client finished the walk-a feat that was unimaginable to her just months earlier-and it changed her life, Shocket recalls.

"It was like a domino effect," says Shocket. "It made her feel like anything else in her life that she really wanted to do, she could do, because the impossible became possible."

Couch crusades

But clients, Epps says, aren't the only ones in need of some exercise coaching. Psychologists could use encouragement as well-and not only for their own health.

"One of the things we do as therapists is provide a model for our clients," she says.

As specialists in the mind-body connection, many psychologists know about the numerous studies demonstrating the physical, mental and emotional benefits of exercise (see "Further Reading").Psychologists also know how to reinforce desired behaviors and maintain motivation. Yet psychotherapy, Shocket says, is in the running for the world title as the most sedentary occupation.

"Therapists tend to be caring individuals who often put other's needs above their own and are quick to give up a planned hour of physical exertion to make room for a client in crisis," says Shocket.

As a psychologist, it's important, she says, to take care of yourself and commit to daily exercise.

The reasons psychologists and others give for avoiding exercise run the gamut, says Shocket. Time restraints, fatigue, boredom-even bad weather and a dislike of sweating-keep people from feeling the burn. To help psychologists discover the benefits of exercise for themselves and learn a few tricks to recommend to their clients, Shocket, Epps and Schwartzbard suggest a number of ways to clear those exercise hurdles:

  • Put fitness first. Perceived lack of time, they say, tops the list of obstacles for starting and maintaining an exercise program.

"People always say there's not time, but we all have the same 24 hours," says Schwartzbard. "You have to make fitness a priority or it just doesn't work."

Shocket recommends reframing exercise as part of a daily routine, and making it as important as showering or brushing your teeth. She also suggests scheduling exercise into an appointment book, and charging yourself or your exercise buddy a no-show fee for cancellations. With carefully selected clients, she sometimes conducts a therapy session while walking on a track near her office, which helps her and the client get active, she says.

  • Make exercise enjoyable. Once you've carved out time to exercise, Schwartzbard says finding an activity you love is the key to staying motivated.

"If you don't like to ride a bicycle, you're not going to ride a bicycle every day," Schwartzbard says. "You have to find something that works for you."

Shocket also advises finding an exercise buddy and reading publications relevant to your chosen physical activity. Both provide social support and keep exercise fun. And using positive reinforcement along the way often helps people stay moving, she says.

"Thinking of the chocolate banana smoothie waiting to be made in the blender often helps me smile through a long run on a hot, humid day," Shocket says.

  • Start small. Finally, they say, it's important not to get discouraged if you miss a workout or two along the way. Epps tells her clients just to keep moving, whether that means starting up a running program or just dancing around the living room.

"Like calories, small bouts of exercise do add up," Shocket says.

Further Reading

  • Martinsen, E.W. (2005). Exercise and depression. International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 3(4) 469-483.

  • Penedo, F.J. & Dahn, J.R. (2005). Exercise and well-being: A review of mental and physical health benefits associated with physical activity. Current Opinion in Psychiatry, 18(2) 189-193.

  • Hays, K. (1999). Working it out: Using exercise in psychotherapy. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.

  • Tkachuk, G.A. & Martin, G.L. (1999). Exercise therapy for patients with psychiatric disorders: Research and clinical implications. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 30(3) 275-282.