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.

A still from the film "We Became Fragments" by Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller, part of the Global Oneness Project library.

Photo: Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller / Global Oneness Project
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • Stories are at the heart of learning, writes Cleary Vaughan-Lee, Executive Director for the Global Oneness Project. They have always challenged us to think beyond ourselves, expanding our experience and revealing deep truths.
  • Vaughan-Lee explains 6 ways that storytelling can foster empathy and deliver powerful learning experiences.
  • Global Oneness Project is a free library of stories—containing short documentaries, photo essays, and essays—that each contain a companion lesson plan and learning activities for students so they can expand their experience of the world.
Keep reading Show less

Four philosophers who realized they were completely wrong about things

Philosophers like to present their works as if everything before it was wrong. Sometimes, they even say they have ended the need for more philosophy. So, what happens when somebody realizes they were mistaken?

Sartre and Wittgenstein realize they were mistaken. (Getty Images)
Culture & Religion

Sometimes philosophers are wrong and admitting that you could be wrong is a big part of being a real philosopher. While most philosophers make minor adjustments to their arguments to correct for mistakes, others make large shifts in their thinking. Here, we have four philosophers who went back on what they said earlier in often radical ways. 

Keep reading Show less

The history of using the Insurrection Act against Americans

Numerous U.S. Presidents invoked the Insurrection Act to to quell race and labor riots.

The army during riots in Washington, DC, after the assassination of civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr., April 1968.

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • U.S. Presidents have invoked the Insurrection Act on numerous occasions.
  • The controversial law gives the President some power to bring in troops to police the American people.
  • The Act has been used mainly to restore order following race and labor riots.
Keep reading Show less

Experts are already predicting an 'active' 2020 hurricane season

It looks like a busy hurricane season ahead. Probably.

Image source: Shashank Sahay/unsplash
Surprising Science
  • Before the hurricane season even started in 2020, Arthur and Bertha had already blown through, and Cristobal may be brewing right now.
  • Weather forecasters see signs of a rough season ahead, with just a couple of reasons why maybe not.
  • Where's an El Niño when you need one?

Welcome to Hurricane Season 2020. 2020, of course, scoffs at this calendric event much as it has everything else that's normal — meteorologists have already used up the year's A and B storm names before we even got here. And while early storms don't necessarily mean a bruising season ahead, forecasters expect an active season this year. Maybe storms will blow away the murder hornets and 13-year locusts we had planned.

NOAA expects a busy season

According to NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, an agency of the National Weather Service, there's a 60 percent chance that we're embarking upon a season with more storms than normal. There does, however, remain a 30 percent it'll be normal. Better than usual? Unlikely: Just a 10 percent chance.

Where a normal hurricane season has an average of 12 named storms, 6 of which become hurricanes and 3 of which are major hurricanes, the Climate Prediction Center reckons we're on track for 13 to 29 storms, 6 to 10 of which will become hurricanes, and 3 to 6 of these will be category 3, 4, or 5, packing winds of 111 mph or higher.

What has forecasters concerned are two factors in particular.

This year's El Niño ("Little Boy") looks to be more of a La Niña ("Little Girl"). The two conditions are part of what's called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle, which describes temperature fluctuations between the ocean and atmosphere in the east-central Equatorial Pacific. With an El Niño, waters in the Pacific are unusually warm, whereas a La Niña means unusually cool waters. NOAA says that an El Niño can suppress hurricane formation in the Atlantic, and this year that mitigating effect is unlikely to be present.

Second, current conditions in the Atlantic and Caribbean suggest a fertile hurricane environment:

  • The ocean there is warmer than usual.
  • There's reduced vertical wind shear.
  • Atlantic tropical trade winds are weak.
  • There have been strong West African monsoons this year.

Here's NOAA's video laying out their forecast:

But wait.

ArsTechnica spoke to hurricane scientist Phil Klotzbach, who agrees generally with NOAA, saying, "All in all, signs are certainly pointing towards an active season." Still, he notes a couple of signals that contradict that worrying outlook.

First off, Klotzbach notes that the surest sign of a rough hurricane season is when its earliest storms form in the deep tropics south of 25°N and east of the Lesser Antilles. "When you get storm formations here prior to June 1, it's typically a harbinger of an extremely active season." Fortunately, this year's hurricanes Arthur and Bertha, as well as the maybe-imminent Cristobal, formed outside this region. So there's that.

Second, Klotzbach notes that the correlation between early storm activity and a season's number of storms and intensities, is actually slightly negative. So while statistical connections aren't strongly predictive, there's at least some reason to think these early storms may augur an easy season ahead.

Image source: NOAA

Batten down the hatches early

If 2020's taught us anything, it's how to juggle multiple crises at once, and layering an active hurricane season on top of SARS-CoV-2 — not to mention everything else — poses a special challenge. Warns Treasury Secretary Wilbur Ross, "As Americans focus their attention on a safe and healthy reopening of our country, it remains critically important that we also remember to make the necessary preparations for the upcoming hurricane season." If, as many medical experts expect, we're forced back into quarantine by additional coronavirus waves, the oceanic waves slamming against our shores will best be met by storm preparations put in place in a less last-minute fashion than usual.

Ross adds, "Just as in years past, NOAA experts will stay ahead of developing hurricanes and tropical storms and provide the forecasts and warnings we depend on to stay safe."

Let's hope this, at least, can be counted on in this crazy year.

Scroll down to load more…