Throughout my life, I have been an avid athlete. Hockey, football, basketball, baseball, you name it. If it involves a ball, consider me in.
Running on the other hand was never a passion of mine. I always thought of it as boring and cumbersome, as it lacked interactive and engaging aspects of team sports. A few years ago, a few family members convinced me to join them in running a half-marathon with Team Yachad. I had participated in various Yachad programs over the years and had come to value and appreciate its mission of inclusion.
I decided to give it a try. This was my first time seriously running, and initially I despised it. I was out of shape, not interested in raising money, and had minimal time to train. As the weeks went by though, I actually began enjoying and looking forward to my next run. Not only did I feel a sense of accomplishment, but I found it an effective elixir after a difficult day at the office and a healthy outlet.
A glance at the research shows that I am not the only one to benefit in these ways and that exercise offers a host of additional benefits as well. The following are three more direct advantages that exercise can have:
1) Enhances mood– Through a number of studies on exercise and depression, Dr. James Blumenthal, clinical psychologist at Duke University, demonstrated that the effects of exercise was by and large equivalent to those taking antidepressant medication (Blumenthal et al., 2007). After four months of treatment, he found that those in the exercise and antidepressant groups had less symptoms of depression than those taking the placebo pill. Furthermore, at a one-year follow up it was found that those that continued their exercise regimen had lower depression scores that those who did not exercise. Thus indicating that exercise can be a powerful tool in preventing relapse as well (Hoffman, et al., 2011).
2) Prevents anxiety- Studies have shown a strong relationship between a lack of physical activity and the development of anxiety disorders. Exercising can neutralize these effects in a number of ways. While one exercises, the brain releases endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers. The body does this to reduce the pain one experiences while exercising. However, the release of endorphins activates a positive feeling in the body comparable to that of morphine (“runner’s high” is related the release of these endorphins) and helps in regulating mood and relaxing the mind. Additionally, when one feels stress, their body releases the hormone cortisol. Elevated levels of cortisol can impact individuals by interfering with learning and memory, lowering one’s immune system functionality, and increasing weight gain, blood pressure, cholesterol, and heart disease. There is evidence to suggest that exercise diminishes cortisol levels, thwarting many of the symptoms that can promote additional anxiety.
3) Improves Sleep- Sleep is one of my areas of expertise and the impact that exercise can have on sleep cannot be minimized. There have been numerous studies documenting the benefits that exercise can have on sleep, both in the quantity and quality of sleep (allowing for longer periods of the deepest stages of sleep). Loprinzi and Cardinal (2011) found in their study that 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity a week provided a 65 percent improvement in sleep quality. Furthermore, according to a 2013 National Sleep Foundation poll, individuals that exercise regularly reported better sleep than those who were not physically active, even though they slept the same amount each night. Researchers suggest that exercise impacts circadian rhythm (body’s biological clock), body temperature, and stress levels which help individuals sleep better.
Participating with Team Yachad not only requires running a half or full marathon, but also raising much needed funds for the organization. Research on altruism and giving shows that there are psychological benefits to this as well. A 2008 study conducted at Harvard Business School found that giving money to someone else increased participants’ levels of happiness more than when the participants spent the money on themselves. Moreover, in his review of the literature, Stephen G. Post (2005) puts forth that there is a strong relationship between the well-being, happiness, health, and longevity of individuals who are engaged in charitable endeavors, with the qualification that the individual does not feel overwhelmed. Midlarsky (1991) suggests a number of reasons depicting the advantages of involving oneself in acts of kindness including: socializing with others, taking the focus off one’s owns troubles, increased meaning in one’s life, enhancement of self-concept, improved mood, and a more active lifestyle. An additional reason offered by the National Institute of Health is that when individuals donate money to charity it activates areas in the brain linked to pleasure, social connection, and trust.
Thomas Jefferson once said, “Leave all the afternoon for exercise and recreation, which are as necessary as reading. I will rather say more necessary because health is worth more than learning.”
I wouldn’t advocate quitting your day job, but the advantages of exercise are well documented. Research shows that exercise can prevent anxiety, improve mood, and improve sleep. The literature on altruism demonstrates the connection between giving and well-being, happiness, and health. Running with Team Yachad has sparked my interest in running, increased my sense of accomplishment, provided a healthy outlet and can benefit you in similar ways. I look forward to seeing you in Miami on January 24, 2016!
Dr. Eric Pollak of Kew Gardens Hills is the Coordinator of Drug and Alcohol Services at the Yeshiva University Counseling Center. Dr. Pollak maintains a thriving private practice in Queens, NY specializing in the treatment of anxiety, sleep, and addictions. Dr. Pollak has also completed two Miami Half-Marathons with Team Yachad. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Blumenthal, J. A., Babyak, M.A., Doraiswamy, P.M., Watkins, L., Hoffman, B.M., Barbour, K.A., et al. (2007). Exercise and pharmacotherapy in the treatment of major depressive disorder. Psychosomatic Medicine, 69, 587-596.
Hoffman B.M., Babyak M.A., Craighead W.E., et al. (2011). Exercise and pharmacotherapy in patients with major depression: one-year follow-up of the SMILE study. Psychosomatic Medicine, 73, 127-133
Loprinzi P.D., Cardinal B.J. Association between objectively-measured physical activity and sleep, NHANES 2005-2006. Mental Health Physical Activity. 2011;4:65–9.
Midlarsky, E. (1991). Helping as coping. Prosocial Behavior: Review of Personality and Social Psychology, 12, 238–264.