Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Exercise: Snake Oil Or Castor Oil?

August 12, 1996

Exercise is a habit. It is a wonderful habit. It is modern day snake oil - good for whatever ails you. It is an almost perfect remedy: a health inducer, stress reducer and self-confidence booster.

The trouble with exercise is that it is also a habit and new habits are hard to make. This habit requires effort, pain, sweat, commitment and time. A commitment of time means a change of lifestyle - fitting exercise into a life that is already busy enough.

A colleague told me that getting exercise into her life was much more difficult than was dieting. I didn't understand what she meant until I tried it. Changing my routine and making a place for exercise is tough. I know what she meant.

Exercise and stress. Psychologist Mark Sothmann of the University of Indiana School of Medicine studies how exercise positively affects our brain chemistry. Exercise is self-induced body stress. Long-term exercise enhances the body's ability to respond to stress. Here, stress is good for us - more like castor oil than snake oil.

Here's how it works. Researchers found that exercise increases brain concentration of norepinephrine in the locus coeruleus. That is the part of the brain that connects most of the other parts that relate to emotion and stress responses.

When people face a novel and challenging situation, it is best to respond and react vigorously. Sothmann found that norepinephrine levels increase in both low-fit and high-fit people during novel stress situations.

However, the body's best response to chronic stress is to reduce the body's response so it can conserve energy. Sothmann believes that exercise helps the body regulate and conserve norepinephrine for situations when we truly need it. In one stress test conducted over a three-day period, Sothmann found that low-fit males had higher levels of norepinephrine than did middle or high-fit men, showing a greater stress response.

Sothmann concludes that people who exercise are better at reducing their response to stress that those who don't. After training low-fit men to exercise, if was found that it takes several months for exercise to start regulating stress responses.

Darn! Exercise isn't like snake oil after all. It takes effort, commitment and time. The good news is that moderate exercise is just as good as intense exercise.

According to Sothmann, exercise seems to give the body a chance to practice dealing with stress. It forces the body's physiological systems - all of which are involved in the stress response - to communicate more closely than usual.

The cardiovascular system communicates with the renal system, which communicates with the muscular system. All of these are controlled by the central and sympathetic nervous systems. Plus, they all must communicate with each other. The workout of the body's communication system may be the true value of exercise.

Exercise and learning. Another psychologist, William T. Greenough of the University of Illinois, found that rats who ran through a treadmill or a running wheel over a 30-day period had more capillary density in their cerebellums than inactive rats. An increased blood supply means an increased oxygen and energy supply and that equals better performance.

Then Greenough taught rats to run an obstacle course - a learning task instead of a physical task. Instead of heightened blood supply, these rats had more connections between their neurons in their cerebellum. It was learning, not movement that created this effect. Greenough speculates that one benefit of sport fitness is that it increases both the blood supply and the brain connections because they combine both learning and exercise.

The pleasure of learning a new activity can explain why exercise makes some people feel less depressed. Moreover, according to John Silva, a psychologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, "The depressed person has often given up their goals and feels it doesn't make sense to do anything. Exercise, with its focus on short-term goals, energy enhancement and step-by-step mastery of an activity, represents the antithesis of all those feelings."

Researchers found that physically active elderly people do better on tests of reasoning, memory, vocabulary and reaction times than the inactive elderly. They feel exercise helps preserve brain functions that normally decline with age rather than actually improving the functioning of exercisers.

Several months of exercise don't get the job done. It takes more than that. It takes long term, chronic exercise to create the understanding benefits of exercise. There is no snake oil here either. Darn again!

I am learning that the more I exercise, the better I feel. My problem with exercise is that it is boring.

I get it now. What I need is a treadmill with a computer game that lets me solve some problems while I'm moving. Maybe I could convince my fellow sufferers at the health club to change the channel away from music videos to educational TV. Maybe I should buy an exercise machine and watch Charlie Rose interviews and sweat at the same time.

I'll figure it out. I've got to.