Maimonides (Rambam), the great Torah scholar and physician of the 12th century,
sums up the Jewish attitude toward exercise: “As long as a person exercises and
sickness does not befall him and his strength
increases.... But one who is idle and does not exercise... even if he eats
healthy foods and maintains healthy habits, all his days will be of ailment and
his strength will diminish.”
The Rambam defined exercise as “vigorous or
gentle movement, or a combination of the two, which increases one’s breathing
Interestingly, this is exactly the type of cardiovascular exercise
advised by modern medicine, like walking, jogging, dancing, biking, or swimming
for 30 minutes at least three times a week.
The physical benefits of
exercise are many – increased strength and stamina, fitness, speed and power as
well as aesthetic appeal.
However, what is also greatly affected by
exercise is the mind. Over the past 20 years, hundreds of studies have shown
that exercise provides numerous emotional benefits such as lowering depression
and anxiety and improving overall self-esteem and confidence.
In fact, I
would argue that regular exercise is a vital coping tool in dealing with the
multitude of problems, challenges and stressors that are part of everyday
Below is a list of a few of the emotional benefits of exercise: •
When you exercise, your brain produces endorphins (endogenous morphine), which
blocks feelings of pain and creates feelings of euphoria by attaching to
receptors on the outer surfaces of brain cells.
• Exercise also increases
the production of serotonin and norepinephrine (adrenaline) which is the
neurotransmitter in the brain that is associated with all kinds of psychological
disorders. Researchers have established that individuals experiencing depression
tend to have lower levels of serotonin and adrenaline in their blood. Through
exercise, these neurotransmitters are increased and help people to feel less
depressed, more optimistic, less worried and more confident.
strengthens the immune system and reduces symptoms of illnesses and disease,
ranging from cancer to the common cold. Even arthritis and gastrointestinal
disorders are relieved through exercise.
• Exercise allows you to express
your frustrations, disappointments, anger and negative energy in a positive way.
Psychologically and physically, exercise gives you more energy and confidence to
improve your relationships with family and friends and problemsolve more
• Exercise increases self-confidence, which positively
affects your professional, personal and social lives.
• Exercise shows
your kids the importance of being healthy and fit – you’ll be a positive role
model. The emotional benefits of exercise can reach your children and
• Exercise calms your mind and helps you feel less stressed in
traffic, at work and at home.
• Exercise enhances testosterone,
increasing muscle mass, sex drive and performance.
• Exercise makes you
feel happier. People who exercise are more optimistic and happy than those who
lead sedentary lifestyles.
• When you exercise, no matter what other
pressure you are facing, you are taking back some control over your life which
can make you feel more hopeful.
Yossie, a 40-year-old computer
programmer, came to therapy suffering from chronic depression, anxiety, angry
outbursts and mood swings. His life was in turmoil with his wife threatening to
leave him, his children acting up, his employer demanding that he get his moods
under control or be fired, and suffering from a general sense of
Psychotherapy and couple therapy combined with psychotropic
medicine to treat Yossie’s mood swings began to help get his life together.
Yossie was not in very good physical shape. When I suggested that he consider
beginning a rigorous exercise program, his initial reaction was to state that he
did not like to exercise.
However, I pointed out that exercise had many
physical and emotional benefits that could really help him maintain the progress
he was making. We spoke about this for a couple of sessions, and gradually
Yossie began to understand that he had to take greater responsibility for his
He also was helped to realize that his emotional
resilience in the face of many psychological and psychiatric problems could be
benefited tremendously by working out. So, after getting the go-ahead from his
family doctor, he joined a health club and started exercising three times a
He began to shed unwanted weight and found himself getting into
terrific shape. His sex life also improved and he was able to do much more with
his children, who were thrilled to see their dad kicking a soccer ball around
for the very first time. Medical tests confirmed that there were many other
improvements with his blood pressure and cholesterol levels dropping within
Of course, for some people, exercise will never be in
their vocabulary. In the words of Groucho Marx, “Whenever I feel the need to
exercise, I lie down until it goes away.”
The writer is a marital, child
and adult psychotherapist practicing in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and