Self-Motivation
David Goggins
Former Navy Seal
Career Development
Bryan Cranston
Actor
Critical Thinking
Liv Boeree
International Poker Champion
Emotional Intelligence
Amaryllis Fox
Former CIA Clandestine Operative
Management
Chris Hadfield
Retired Canadian Astronaut & Author
Learn
from the world's big
thinkers
Start Learning

New study asks: Should we replace mental health meds with exercise?

We knew exercise is necessary, but this research takes it to another level.

Jockey Wendy Peel trains in the gym with personal trainer Trent Langlands as she continues preparations for her return to racing on May 20, 2019 in Sydney, Australia.

Photo by Jenny Evans/Getty Images
  • Researchers at the University of Vermont believe exercise should be prescribed to patients with mental health issues before psychiatric drugs.
  • In a study of roughly a hundred volunteers, 95 percent of patients reported feeling better, while 63 percent reported feeling happy or very happy.
  • The researchers suggest that mental health facilities should be built with gyms moving forward.

Exercise has long been prescribed as part of a healthy lifestyle — an important directive, considering that 80 percent of Americans are insufficiently active. Previous research has shown that lifting weights helps lift depression, cardiovascular activities reduce the effects of anxiety, and any type of movement improves mental health.

A new study at the University of Vermont Medical Center published in the journal Global Advances in Health and Medicine takes that last claim one step further: Exercise should be prescribed to patients with mental health issues before psychiatric drugs.

This research follows a growing acknowledgment of the chronic problems associated with SSRIs and other pharmacological interventions. The efficacy of antidepressants diminishes over time, leaving patients hooked as they suffer more side effects than benefits. As Jerome Groopman recently reported in The New Yorker, the field of psychiatry has long offered contentious treatments because we do not have a biology for mental illness. Mental health scripts are guesswork, more of an art than science.

For this study, lead author David Tomasi, a psychotherapist and lecturer at the University of Vermont, alongside the center's Sheri Gates and Emily Reyns, built a gym for the hundred-or-so members of the inpatient psychiatry unit. Tomasi says that most patients in the U.S. are first treated with medications, with exercise-based treatments offered in either a limited capacity or not at all. The center is the first to prescribe exercise as the first form of treatment.

How to manage your mental health | Leon Taylor | TEDxClapham

The results were stunning. After leading the patients in structured exercises — each 60-minute session included a combination of strength training, flexibility training, and cardio — 95 percent of patients reported feeling better, while 63 percent reported feeling happy or very happy instead of sad, very sad, or neutral. A whopping 91.8 percent said they were pleased with their bodies during the sessions. Tomasi continues,

The general attitude of medicine is that you treat the primary problem first, and exercise was never considered to be a life or death treatment option. Now that we know it's so effective, it can become as fundamental as pharmacological intervention.

Blame, in large part, Cartesian dualism. The mind-body split has destroyed our understanding of our inherent animal nature. The notion that there's an ethereal process inside the biological workings of our bodies — the ambiguous "soul" — has resulted in a severe disassociation between physical movement and psychology. We've come to believe we can treat the brain separately from the body.

Humans were designed to move. Bipedalism offers us serious advantages in lung capacity and communication systems. Humans are generally weak and slow for mammals, but the combination of mental ingenuity and physical dexterity gave us a competitive advantage, one we've exploited so effectively that, thanks to our technology, we now bow to the cult of the mind while abandoning the reality of our bodies. Yet we're paying the price for our conveniences.

As we enter a world dominated by AR and VR, in which e-sports players actually consider themselves athletes, this disconnection deepens. As Robert McFarlane writes in Landmarks, the removal of nature-based words from our dictionaries to make room for terms associated with technology is another nail in the coffin of our relationship with nature. When we have a richer vocabulary for items on a screen than for what we see when we lift our gaze, we lose a sense of what formed the very essence of who we are.

Exercise treats depression

A man does pull-ups exercises at a beach on the Philippine island of Boracay on October 25, 2018.

Photo by Noel Celis/AFP/Getty Images

From escaping predators and chasing prey to squatting for foraging and for the dexterous engagement required to build shelter, our physiological plate was full for eons. Now, we've constructed a world in which most of the population survives by performing minimal physical activity. To believe this would not have profound consequences on our mental health is to be ignorant of the journey that brought us here.

No one involved in the study is suggesting abandoning psychotropic medications — yet. For the time being, the team suggests integrating gyms into psychiatric facilities to conduct more real-world testing. As Tomasi concludes,

The priority is to provide more natural strategies for the treatment of mood disorders, depression and anxiety. In practice, we hope that every psychiatric facility will include integrative therapies — in our case, exercise in particular — as the primary resource for their patients' psycho-physical wellbeing.

This isn't a fusion of mind and body, but a recognition that "mind" needs "body" in order to thrive. A sedentary existence does not ultimately provide meaning. Humans need to own every aspect of our birthright. That a prescription as simple as "move" could alleviate a range of mental health issues is not simplistic, even if it is simple. Of course, its efficacy can only be measured through movement, which is what nature demands of us.

--

Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook.

Hulu's original movie "Palm Springs" is the comedy we needed this summer

Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti get stuck in an infinite wedding time loop.

Gear
  • Two wedding guests discover they're trapped in an infinite time loop, waking up in Palm Springs over and over and over.
  • As the reality of their situation sets in, Nyles and Sarah decide to enjoy the repetitive awakenings.
  • The film is perfectly timed for a world sheltering at home during a pandemic.
Keep reading Show less

Two MIT students just solved Richard Feynman’s famed physics puzzle

Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.

Surprising Science

Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.

Keep reading Show less

Our ‘little brain’ turns out to be pretty big

The multifaceted cerebellum is large — it's just tightly folded.

Image source: Sereno, et al
Mind & Brain
  • A powerful MRI combined with modeling software results in a totally new view of the human cerebellum.
  • The so-called 'little brain' is nearly 80% the size of the cerebral cortex when it's unfolded.
  • This part of the brain is associated with a lot of things, and a new virtual map is suitably chaotic and complex.

Just under our brain's cortex and close to our brain stem sits the cerebellum, also known as the "little brain." It's an organ many animals have, and we're still learning what it does in humans. It's long been thought to be involved in sensory input and motor control, but recent studies suggests it also plays a role in a lot of other things, including emotion, thought, and pain. After all, about half of the brain's neurons reside there. But it's so small. Except it's not, according to a new study from San Diego State University (SDSU) published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).

A neural crêpe

A new imaging study led by psychology professor and cognitive neuroscientist Martin Sereno of the SDSU MRI Imaging Center reveals that the cerebellum is actually an intricately folded organ that has a surface area equal in size to 78 percent of the cerebral cortex. Sereno, a pioneer in MRI brain imaging, collaborated with other experts from the U.K., Canada, and the Netherlands.

So what does it look like? Unfolded, the cerebellum is reminiscent of a crêpe, according to Sereno, about four inches wide and three feet long.

The team didn't physically unfold a cerebellum in their research. Instead, they worked with brain scans from a 9.4 Tesla MRI machine, and virtually unfolded and mapped the organ. Custom software was developed for the project, based on the open-source FreeSurfer app developed by Sereno and others. Their model allowed the scientists to unpack the virtual cerebellum down to each individual fold, or "folia."

Study's cross-sections of a folded cerebellum

Image source: Sereno, et al.

A complicated map

Sereno tells SDSU NewsCenter that "Until now we only had crude models of what it looked like. We now have a complete map or surface representation of the cerebellum, much like cities, counties, and states."

That map is a bit surprising, too, in that regions associated with different functions are scattered across the organ in peculiar ways, unlike the cortex where it's all pretty orderly. "You get a little chunk of the lip, next to a chunk of the shoulder or face, like jumbled puzzle pieces," says Sereno. This may have to do with the fact that when the cerebellum is folded, its elements line up differently than they do when the organ is unfolded.

It seems the folded structure of the cerebellum is a configuration that facilitates access to information coming from places all over the body. Sereno says, "Now that we have the first high resolution base map of the human cerebellum, there are many possibilities for researchers to start filling in what is certain to be a complex quilt of inputs, from many different parts of the cerebral cortex in more detail than ever before."

This makes sense if the cerebellum is involved in highly complex, advanced cognitive functions, such as handling language or performing abstract reasoning as scientists suspect. "When you think of the cognition required to write a scientific paper or explain a concept," says Sereno, "you have to pull in information from many different sources. And that's just how the cerebellum is set up."

Bigger and bigger

The study also suggests that the large size of their virtual human cerebellum is likely to be related to the sheer number of tasks with which the organ is involved in the complex human brain. The macaque cerebellum that the team analyzed, for example, amounts to just 30 percent the size of the animal's cortex.

"The fact that [the cerebellum] has such a large surface area speaks to the evolution of distinctively human behaviors and cognition," says Sereno. "It has expanded so much that the folding patterns are very complex."

As the study says, "Rather than coordinating sensory signals to execute expert physical movements, parts of the cerebellum may have been extended in humans to help coordinate fictive 'conceptual movements,' such as rapidly mentally rearranging a movement plan — or, in the fullness of time, perhaps even a mathematical equation."

Sereno concludes, "The 'little brain' is quite the jack of all trades. Mapping the cerebellum will be an interesting new frontier for the next decade."

Economists show how welfare programs can turn a "profit"

What happens if we consider welfare programs as investments?

A homeless man faces Wall Street

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • A recently published study suggests that some welfare programs more than pay for themselves.
  • It is one of the first major reviews of welfare programs to measure so many by a single metric.
  • The findings will likely inform future welfare reform and encourage debate on how to grade success.
Keep reading Show less
Videos

Unhappy at work? How to find meaning and maintain your mental health

Finding a balance between job satisfaction, money, and lifestyle is not easy.

Scroll down to load more…
Quantcast