Not many people know that my interest in exercise originated when I began investigating how exercise affects mental states, primarily anxiety.
Prevalence of Anxiety Conditions:
The occurrence rate of anxiety disorder is alarmingly high. Some studies have demonstrated that nearly 19.2% of the male population and 30.4% of the female population will experience the occurrence of an anxiety disorder during their lifetime. Anxiety disorders include: generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, agoraphobia, panic disorder without agoraphobia, panic disorder without agoraphobia, social phobia, obsessive-compulsive disorder and acute stress disorder (American Psychiatric Association, 1994)
Treatment of Anxiety Disorders:
Today’s medical community offers various programs that can be used in the treatment of Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). The principle treatments for GAD include: psychotherapy, cognitive therapy and pharmacologic therapy. These forms of treatment have proven to be extremely successful, and it is estimated that nearly 80% of cases involving the use of pharmacologic treatments, in some anxiety disorders, have proven to be effective. Although these treatment modalities are extremely successful (I do support these treatments), they do present some inherent problems. Psychotherapies can be time consuming and expensive, and medications can expose people to uncomfortable side effects. Due to these issues there has been, and continues to be, interest in identifying adjunct methods of treatment.
One such adjunct is exercise. Over the past 30 years, a considerable amount of research pertaining to the efficacy of the anxiolytic effect of exercise has been performed. Overall, the research has produced findings that do suggest a positive association between exercise and improved effective states. To be fair, these studies have not come unchallenged.
Mechanisms of Psychological Change:
It is highly likely that the anxiologic effects of exercise are the result of interactions between neurophysiological and psychological mechanisms.
Neurophysiolgical Mechanisms of Change:
The two leading neurophysiological hypotheses explaining the positive relationship between physical activity and GAD are the Monoamine and Endorphin Hypotheses.
The Endorphin Hypothesis is the most widely know, and I am sure you have heard someone say something like “the endorphins are starting to kick in” at the gym.
In short, endorphins (termed “the brains own Morphine”) have been shown to have the ability to ease pain, and sometimes produce feeling of euphoria. Research evidence has demonstrated that exercise can increase the circulating levels of endorphins. However, there still exists debate on how much, how intense and what type of exercise produces the most significant increase in endorphins. Speaking from a practical perspective I have never experienced feelings of euphoria during an exercise session, however, it is not uncommon for me to experience increased feeling of well-being during exercise.
Psychological Mechanisms of Change:
Along with the neurophysiological explanations for the positive effect of exercise, psychological explanations have also been advanced and received well within the scientific communities.
The leading psychological explanations include: The Distraction hypothesis, The Self-Efficacy hypothesis and the Cognitive Dissonance theory.
Of these three I tend to relate more closely with the Self Efficacy hypothesis. The Self-Efficacy hypothesis is based on the belief that people’ emotions are closely tied to their perceptions of their ability to engage in situations successfully. As individual move through an activity program, it is believed their self-efficacy will improve as a result of improvements in their abilities – making them feel better about themselves. This hypothesis has also been referred to as self-mastery (Ismail & Trachtman, 1973)
I wanted to write this post to emphasize that exercise is not simply about looking better in a swimsuit, being able to press 300#, etc. it is far more complex. It is about lifestyle, happiness, and preparing yourself to be able to overcome life challenges.