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Exercise has been shown to prompt a healthier metabolic state (Sharma et al., 2006) and aid in weight loss even without calorie restriction (Donnelly et al., 2013). Additionally, exercise has been shown to decrease cortisol. This hormone increases in response to short-term stress and suppresses the immune response to toxins or illnesses, such as a cold or flu virus (Nys et al., 2022).
Exercise can help people live happier and calmer lives (Dinas et al., 2010; Aylet et al., 2018), partially due to the release of beta-endorphins, which are naturally produced by the body and bind to the same receptors as synthetic opioids. This chemical messenger has pain-relieving effects and interacts with the dopamine system, linking it to feelings of reward (Sprouse-Blum et al., 2010).
How Exercise Helps
One of my 16-year-old high school patients, “Aaron” (not his real name), told me that his exercise regimen for his varsity water polo and swim seasons included year-round weight training for roughly 2-3 hours a day for 5-6 days a week. He said he did so because of his love for competition and the immense opportunity for personal growth.
He explained that it felt natural and straightforward since he built exercise into a habitual routine. In the off-season, his morning exercise included yoga or push-ups to help him wake up and get to school with a positive attitude. He said he believed exercise is one of the most important tools in his life for maintaining a state of mental well-being.
Aaron told me that exercising through sports has been the way he had made most of my friends in high school. He said they bonded through their love of exercise during the many different difficult workouts given to them by their coaches.
In fact, a study involving urban marathoners showed that arduous exercise done in a group, like the workouts my patient had undertaken with his friends, can bring the group closer together, forming a community (Yang et al., 2022).
The Effects of Lack of Exercise
Last year, Aaron was sick for three weeks with a string of respiratory illnesses. As a result, he was unable to exercise for weeks. He told me that even though he was usually a happy-go-lucky person, he was surprised by the grouchiness that, seemingly out of nowhere, began to seep its way into his personality. He socialized less, and homework tasks that he had done easily in the past became more daunting and frustrating.
We discussed that this may have been due to the lack of exercise-related endorphins, coupled with getting poorer sleep due to the sickness. It seemed as if he was experiencing withdrawal-like symptoms because of the cessation of exercise.
Aaron’s experience was similar to the results reported from a study of 40 male runners over six weeks, where half the group stopped running for the middle two weeks of the study. The runners who stopped running were documented to have more depressive symptoms at the end of the second week of cessation (Morris et al., 1990).
Hypnosis and Lack of Exercise
I had taught Aaron to use hypnosis to help him feel calm and maintain a positive mental state. While he was unable to exercise, he continued to use hypnosis every night to help him go to sleep. Still, he reported that it didn’t seem to lessen his general fatigue, stress, and irritability.
Aaron explained that he had been using hypnosis to relax himself by picturing calming environments. I suggested that he might have benefitted more if he had used hypnosis to imagine himself engaging in physical exercise.
For instance, mental imagery of weightlifting has been shown to increase strength performance in athletes who were inactive due to injury (Slimani et al., 2016). Thus, imagining that he was physically exercising might have helped improve his mental state through the employment of brain pathways similar to those activated during exercise.
After many weeks of inactivity, Aaron restarted his exercise routine once most of his respiratory symptoms cleared. He reported feeling better, becoming less irritable and stressed out, and returning to his upbeat self.
Exercise is essential for good physical and mental health, as illustrated by the medical literature and my patient’s experiences.