DCTMI and the Importance of Physical Exercise

Practical educational and civic transformation.

We all understand the dynamics: When two people feel tired and cranky, they are much more likely to have a bad experience trying to work together than the joyful, creative, relationship-building experience they may have when they are in a good mood and feel centered and creative. Likewise, when trying to solve a problem by myself — whether dealing with an intellectual challenge, a personal or leadership issue, or a practical problem at work or home — if I’ve had time to exercise and reflect, I feel I am more creative, a better problem solver, and better able to find “win-win” solutions to whatever I’m wrestling with.

This has implications for our personal well-being, for our relationships (as volunteers and as kids being tutored or mentored), and for the overall civic health of a community. And that’s why we are organizing CivicFest 2018 and Neighborhood Field Days (2017) as a fun way to get people exercising outdoors, meeting their neighbors and building the foundation for stronger communities and lives.

There’s a wealth of research showing that physical exercise not only has obvious physical benefits but mental ones as well:

  • Increased sense of self-efficacy – “I can make things happen. I have the energy and the grit to change things — my own life or things around me — for the better.”
  • Improving our mood – Fighting depression
  • Reducing our anxiety – Fighting panicky fight or flight instincts.
  • Buffering the brain from “social defeat” and other stressful situations – “Exercise may be a way of biologically toughening up the brain so stress has less of a central impact.”
  • Fighting ADHD symptoms – The impact can be similar to taking drugs, according to an article recapping recent scientific research in The Atlantic.

As Kirsten Weir puts it for an American Psychological Association publication:

If you’ve ever gone for a run after a stressful day, chances are you felt better afterward. “The link between exercise and mood is pretty strong,” Otto says. “Usually within five minutes after moderate exercise you get a mood-enhancement effect.”

But the effects of physical activity extend beyond the short-term. Research shows that exercise can also help alleviate long-term depression.

Some of the evidence for that comes from broad, population-based correlation studies. “There’s good epidemiological data to suggest that active people are less depressed than inactive people.

In 2006, Otto and colleagues reviewed 11 studies investigating the effects of exercise on mental health. They determined that exercise could be a powerful intervention for clinical depression (Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 2006). Based on those findings, they concluded, clinicians should consider adding exercise to the treatment plans for their depressed patients.

“Exercise may be a way of biologically toughening up the brain so stress has less of a central impact,” Otto says.

It’s likely that multiple factors are at play. “Exercise has such broad effects that my guess is that there are going to be multiple mechanisms at multiple levels,” Smits says.

It’s also unclear exactly how moving your muscles can have such a significant effect on mental health…

Some researchers suspect exercise alleviates chronic depression by increasing serotonin (the neurotransmitter targeted by antidepressants) or brain-derived neurotrophic factor (which supports the growth of neurons). Another theory suggests exercise helps by normalizing sleep, which is known to have protective effects on the brain.

There are psychological explanations, too. Exercise may boost a depressed person’s outlook by helping him return to meaningful activity and providing a sense of accomplishment. Then there’s the fact that a person’s responsiveness to stress is moderated by activity. “Exercise may be a way of biologically toughening up the brain so stress has less of a central impact,” Otto says.

It’s likely that multiple factors are at play. “Exercise has such broad effects that my guess is that there are going to be multiple mechanisms at multiple levels,” Smits says.

Source: The exercise effect. American Psychological Ass’n Monitor on Psychology Dec. 2011.


  • Healthy Brain, Happy Life: A Personal Program to Activate Your Brain and Do Everything Better. Wendy Suzuki
  • Exercise for Mood and Anxiety: Proven Strategies for Overcoming Depression and Enhancing Well-being (2011), Michael Otto & Jasper A.J. Smits
  • The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time (2015)
    Alex Korb PhD

Articles and Blogs

  • The exercise effect
    Kim Weir, American Psycholical Ass’n Monitor on Psychology Dec. 2011. http://www.apa.org/monitor/2011/12/exercise.aspx
    “Evidence is mounting for the benefits of exercise, yet psychologists don’t often use exercise as part of their treatment arsenal. Here’s more research on why they should.” December 2011, Vol 42, No. 11. Print version: page 48.
  • The Benefits of Exercising Outdoors
    Gretchen Reynolds, Feb. 21, 2013. https://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/02/21/the-benefits-of-exercising-outdoors
    “While the allure of the gym — climate-controlled, convenient and predictable — is obvious, especially in winter, emerging science suggests there are benefits to exercising outdoors that can’t be replicated on a treadmill, a recumbent bicycle or a track.”
  • Closest Thing to a Wonder Drug? Try Exercise
    “The overall results of 23 randomized controlled trials showed that exercise most likely improves the symptoms of depression. Five others appear to show that it improves symptoms in patients with chronic fatigue syndrome. In trials, exercise even lessened fatigue in patients who were having therapy for cancer.” http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/21/upshot/why-you-should-exercise-no-not-to-lose-weight.html. Aaron E. Carroll is a professor of pediatrics at Indiana University School of Medicine.
  • Physical Activity Improves Cognitive Function: Regular physical activity can improve brain function throughout a lifespan.
    http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-athletes-way/201404/physical-activity-improves-cognitive-function (April 9, 2014) Christopher Bergland
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