Oklahoma Bar Journal
The Importance of Exercise for Mental Health
By Geoffrey A. Tabor
It is no secret the legal sector lags behind many other white-collar professions in terms of general well-being. In 2016, working alongside the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs conducted national research on lawyer impairment. The aim of the study was to assess both substance use and mental health trends among lawyers.1 After assessing a representative cross-section of 12,825 licensed, employed attorneys, the study found in part that “mental distress is also significant. These data underscore the need for greater resources for lawyer assistance programs and also the expansion of available attorney-specific prevention and treatment interventions.”2 As many readers likely know, exercise has tremendous benefits for our overall well-being. Thus, if there was ever a profession that should highly encourage its practitioners to exercise regularly, it is certainly the legal sector.
It is common knowledge exercise is incredibly important for us, and staying regularly active can lead to a happier and healthier life. But what are the specific scientific grounds for these conclusions, and how can they relate to the statistical trends of mental illness and substance abuse in our profession? In other words, why exactly is exercise good for our mental health? I ask this seemingly basic question because the scientific findings may further encourage us all to prioritize physical activity not only for our physical health but for mental well-being as well.
THE PHYSICAL BENEFITS
First, and as many are more familiar with, the physical benefits of exercise have been well documented for generations. Despite this well-known knowledge, some of the more recent and narrowed scientific findings may still surprise many readers. Specifically, researchers have found regular physical activity reduces many major mortality risk factors, including hypertension, Type 2 diabetes prevention and management, coronary heart disease (the leading cause of death in the U.S.), stroke and various types of cancer.3
Overall, scientific literature has found people who regularly exercise can experience a 30% to 35% drop in all-cause mortality compared with those who are physically inactive.4 The good news does not stop there. The threshold to reap serious benefits from exercise is not as high as many may think. Indeed, Harvard researchers have found that even as little as 15 minutes of physical activity a day can boost one’s life expectancy by three years.5 Although it is clear exercising and leading a healthier lifestyle for a longer period of time will reap higher benefits in the end, new research has concluded that increases of exercise for middle-aged and even senior populations will still result in at least some longevity and preventative benefits across the board.6 In other words, there are two important points we are well guided to always remember: 1) it is never too late to start exercising and to get instant results and 2) you don’t have to exercise as much as you may think to reap positive health benefits.
THE MENTAL BENEFITS
The mental and emotional benefits of regular exercise are just as important and far-reaching as the physical ones. While most people are quite familiar with the benefits exercise has for the heart, muscles and joints, some may be surprised to learn about the extent of the mental and emotional benefits of exercise.
Studies from Harvard have shown exercise can be just as effective as pharmaceuticals for many people fighting milder forms of depression.7 However, researchers are quick to note that people with severe clinical depression cannot simply be treated by exercise or lifestyle changes alone, but rather a combination of these practices with prescribed medications. Why does exercise help treat depression? The simple answer is two-fold.
First, exercise releases our bodies’ “feel good” chemicals called endorphins. Endorphins are morphine-like chemicals that are naturally released by our pituitary glands that help diminish pain while simultaneously triggering positive feelings. At the molecular level, the chemical structure of endorphins share similarities with morphine and other opioids.8 Indeed, people with chronic pain conditions such as fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome often have much lower than normal levels of baseline endorphins in their bodies.9 Second, regular exercise supports nerve cell growth in the hippocampus portion of the brain, which improves nerve cell connections, and in turn helps relieve depression.10 In other words, regular exercise helps stimulate and keep healthy the parts of the brain that directly control and affect depression.
Research has shown similar conclusions regarding the ability of exercise to treat anxiety. In a recent publication, Harvard psychiatrist John J. Ratey, M.D., wrote about the importance of exercise in treating anxiety:
[L]acing up your sneakers and getting out and moving may be the single best nonmedical solution we have for preventing and treating anxiety … As a psychiatrist who studies the effects of exercise on the brain, I’ve not only seen the science, I’ve witnessed firsthand how physical activity affects my patients. Research shows aerobic exercise is especially helpful. A simple bike ride, dance class, or even a brisk walk can be a powerful tool for those suffering from chronic anxiety. Activities like these also help people who are feeling overly nervous and anxious about an upcoming test, a big presentation, or an important meeting.11
Perhaps most importantly, Dr. Ratey also provided a short list of tips to maximize the benefits of exercise to treat anxiety:
- Choose something enjoyable so you will do it repeatedly, building resilience.
- Work toward getting your heart rate up.
- Work out with a friend or in a group to reap the added benefit of social support.
- If possible, exercise in nature or green space, which further lowers stress and anxiety.12
WHAT DO I DO FROM HERE?
Many people I talk to who are not physically active but want to start exercising more often feel intimidated on where to start, how to eat better and what type of exercises to do. It is wonderful that our current technology allows us to educate ourselves so easily and rapidly on topics such as exercise and nutrition, but like anything else, this comes with some negative baggage. Particularly in the fitness and nutrition industry, many times there seem to be conflicting “experts” on what type of exercise is best and what current dietary trend is the healthiest. A quick glance through social media or a Google search on these topics may leave some feeling overwhelmed in terms of the amount of information and vast array of opinions. Is steady-state cardio the best? What about weightlifting? High-intensity interval training (HIIT)? Swimming? Brisk walking?
For those simply looking to get started or back on track, my advice, much like Dr. Ratey’s, is this – find something you like. It’s no surprise that over the long term, people are going to stick with something they enjoy more often than something they do not enjoy. If you love running, then run! If you love weightlifting, then lift! Just be consistent and find a plan that works for you. It does not matter if you can only exercise for 20 minutes a day. What matters is that 20 minutes is more than zero minutes.
From a biological perspective, exercise is a magic pill with arguably the most diverse set of benefits any singular activity or treatment can offer a person. From a mathematical and investment perspective, exercise is a must-buy stock, given that fairly minimal capital contributions (by way of us taking the time to exercise) reap serious dividends many times over the initial investment. Better yet, the drastic positive returns on our investments are guaranteed time and time again.
Also, given that exercise improves our sleep, mental clarity and daily functions, it makes us more professionally productive. The value of our labor, down to the billable hour or task, immediately becomes more valuable because our efficiency has improved. Over time, what seem like small increments in our exercise routines will grow with compound interest and reap great dividends for our physical health, mental health and abilities as attorneys.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Geoffrey Tabor is a trial attorney at Ward & Glass LLP in Norman. He is originally from Ardmore and was the four-time state champion in both the shot put and discus throw in high school from 2005-2008. In college he was named a two-time NCAA All-American (2011-2012) and was the 2011 PAC-10 champion in the discus throw at Stanford University.
- “The Prevalence of Substance Use and Other Mental Health Concerns Among American Attorneys,” Krill, Patrick R., J.D., L.L.M.; Johnson, Ryan, M.A.; Albert, Linda, M.S.S.W. Journal of Addiction Medicine: January/February 2016, Volume 10, Issue 1, p. 46-52.
- Does Physical Activity Increase Life Expectancy? A Review of the Literature, Reimers, C.D.; Knapp, G.; and Reimers, A.K. U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, July 1, 2012.
- “Exercise: 15 minutes a day ups lifespan by 3 years,” Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard Health Letter, Dec. 2013.
- Physical activity trajectories and mortality: population based cohort study, Mok, Alexander, Khaw, Kay-Tee, Luben, Robert, Wareham, Nick and Brage, Soren, The BMJ, April 25, 2019.
- “Exercise is an all-natural treatment to fight depression,” Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard Health Letter, April 30, 2018.
- Primary structure and morphine-like activity of human beta-endorphin, Dragon, N; Seidah, N.G.; Routhier, R.; and Chretien, M. U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, June 1977.
- Do low levels of beta-endorphin in the cerebrospinal fluid indicate defective top-down inhibition in patients with chronic neuropathic pain? A cross-sectional, comparative study, Bäckryd, E., Ghaforui, B., Larsson, B., and Gerdle, B. U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health. Oct. 4, 2013.
- Id. at note v.
- “Can exercise help treat anxiety?” Ratey, John J., M.D. Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard Health Blog, Oct. 24, 2019.
Originally published in the Oklahoma Bar Journal -- OBJ 91 No. 10 (December 2020)