Exercise is medicine, even in the middle of a pandemic

Exercise provides numerous emotional benefits such as lowering depression and anxiety.

Joggers hit the pavement in Jerusalem's Sacher Park (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
Joggers hit the pavement in Jerusalem's Sacher Park
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
Maimonides (Rambam), the great 12th century Torah scholar and physician, sums up the Jewish attitude toward exercise: “As long as a person exercises and exerts himself…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 rate.” 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.
However, social distancing, self-quarantining, and the closure of many gyms have made it harder to exercise. In desperation, many people have turned to walking or jogging outdoors – not permitted in Israel during the first lockdown — while others have found benefit in turning to online workouts. During the first wave, my wife and I did in fact discover a very good online exercise program.
Certainly, the physical benefits of exercise are many: increased strength and stamina, fitness, speed and power as well as aesthetic appeal. In addition, 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 life.
Below I list a few of the emotional and physical benefits of exercise.
1. When you exercise, your brain produces endorphins (endogenous morphine) that block the feelings of pain and create feelings of euphoria by attaching to receptors on the outer surfaces of brain cells.
2. 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.
3. During the COVID-19 pandemic: Exercise boosts the immune system. Research shows that regular, moderate-intensity exercise has immune-boosting benefits that may reduce symptoms of illnesses and disease, ranging from cancer to the common cold. Even arthritis and gastrointestinal disorders are relieved through exercise.
4. 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 problem-solve more effectively.
5. Exercise increases self-confidence, which positively affects your professional, personal and social lives.
6. 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 beyond.
7. Exercise calms your mind and helps you feel less stressed from work (especially so many people working from home these days).
8. Exercise enhances testosterone, increasing muscle mass and sex drive and performance.
9. Exercise makes you feel happier. People who exercise are more optimistic and happier than those who lead sedentary lifestyles.
10. In addition, regular physical exercise is a non-pharmacological intervention recommended by the American Sleep Association to promote adequate sleep.
11. 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.
So, as I recommended in my last article about pandemic fatigue, “exercise, exercise, exercise.” During these trying times, people need to safeguard their health and stay positive, something exercise has been proven to do. I regularly try to motivate my clients to do some type of exercise. Many take this advice and reap its benefits.
Of course, for some people, exercise will never be in their vocabulary. In the words of Mark Twain, “Whenever I feel the urge to exercise, I lie down until it goes away.”
The writer is a marital, child and adult cognitive-behavioral psychotherapist with offices in Jerusalem and Ra’anana and global online accessibility, [email protected]; www.facebook.com/drmikegropper.