Shape up!

Exercise has many surprising benefits

cleaning 521 (photo credit: MCT)
cleaning 521
(photo credit: MCT)
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 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.
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 life.
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.
• Exercise 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 effectively.
• 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 beyond.
• 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 hopelessness.
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 general health.
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 week.
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 normal limits.
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 Ra’anana.