How exercise leads to a 'cascade of positive experiences'.

How exercise leads to a 'cascade of positive experiences'.

Sarah Berry | The Age | July 15 2017

On days when I'm tired or not in the mood, I have to play mind games to make myself to exercise.

After sitting in the car for five or 10 minutes resisting the run, I'll say to myself, "You can just walk today." With a sigh, I'll relent and drag myself from the car. Having willed myself to the first steep set of stairs, I'll negotiate: "Why don't you try just running up these steps and see how that feels", which I'll do and inevitably feel energised and with the momentum activated, the rest of the run is easy.

The knock-on effect is multi-faceted: I finish in a better mood, am subsequently better company and, with a cleared-head am better able to work. 

Exercise benefits us psychologically and it is a protective factor against heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, hyper-tension, obesity, and some cancers. For these reasons, it is considered a "positive event", but researchers of a new study wanted to explore the cascade effect of exercise into other areas of our lives. 

"There is reason to believe that one positive event might increase the likelihood of subsequent positive events," said the authors of the study from George Mason University. "Engagement in exercise may serve as a mechanism to increase engagement in future positive events, leading to a 'cascade' of positive experiences." 

The researchers recruited 179 university students and, over the course of three weeks, measured their daily exercise against other measures of 'positive events' that were unrelated to the exercise, like positive social interaction and achievements like completing a project. The participants also rated the importance of the positive events on a scale.

"Daily exercise predicted increased frequency and importance of positive social and achievement events on the same day," the researchers said, noting that the findings were not 'bidirectional' meaning  that positive achievements and social interactions did not predict subsequent exercise. 

"These findings imply that exercise might possess a unique ability to initiate a cascade of subsequent positive social events."

While the positive cascade effect applies to all of us who exercise, the researchers say their findings support the idea of exercise as a component of behavioural activation, a method used to treat depression and help people engage in positive activities that reignite pleasure and a sense of achievement. 

"I spend quite a lot of time speaking with people about the importance of exercise for treatment of depression because the evidence is so strong," says the clinical director of the Black Dog Institute, Associate Professor Josephine Anderson.

"There is evidence of exercise as a stand-alone treatment for moderate-to-mild depression and for boosting the effect of other treatments your psychologist might recommend for you. We should all be doing it."

A common challenge people with depression face is a lack of motivation or interest. But, just as our feelings influence our behaviour, our behaviour can influence our feelings.

"When we're depressed, because we find everything so effortful and because our thoughts are often very negative, [we are] more comfortable withdrawing from the outside world, from things like work, things like socialising, things like exercise," Anderson explains, adding that depression can be defined "as a loss of pleasure". 

By withdrawing however the parts of the brain that light up in response to pleasure stop being stimulated and stop lighting up. 

"That's why when we then do the reverse and go and engage in something pleasurable and we do it systematically - every day - we are actually beginning to stimulate those areas of the brain that have been understimulated... they won't necessarily give you pleasure immediately... but if you can keep doing them you will have a cascade effect." 

Taking physical action to treat depression is not to disregard circumstances that may have caused it.

"We're not saying, if there are stressors in your life that are contributing to you becoming depressed 'just ignore those'," Anderson says. "You do need to address those... but things like exercise can still help the person be more resilient in the face of those stressors."

Anderson says we need to think of our brains and bodies as "an integrated organism".

"It's the thinking, it's the behaving and it's the feeling all going together - they affect each other," she explains. "You don't just tackle one or other, you tackle all three." 

Anderson's tips for those struggling with motivation to exercise

  • Understand the benefits. "People are not necessarily aware that exercise is a proven treatment for mild-to-moderate depression, so educating people is the first thing." 
  • Start small. "We recommend you make a plan to start slowly and build up gradually." Anderson recommends at least 30 minutes a day.
  • Plan to exercise at a particular time of day that fits in with your lifestyle and remember it doesn't just help current mood, it can be helpful in preventing further episodes of depression and anxiety. "So it's important to think about how you can build it into your life, not just when the doctor tells you," Anderson says.
  • Reward yourself for incremental change and improvement.
  • Get others involved "So that it's a bit more social but also so there's an impetus if you don't feel like it one day."
  • Explore what you enjoy. "This is going to be part of your new life so think about how you can make it something attractive and something you want to do - something you miss if for some reason you can't do it one day." 

The Black Dog Institute's annual campaign in September, Exercise Your Mood, encourages Australians to get active and address the importance of regular exercise for not just physical but also mental health.

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