[CN: Brief mention of eating disorders, exercise for weight loss]
“Even a little bit of exercise can improve mental functioning!”
The little display-quotes at the top of Psychology Today’s page always make me a touch antsy. The thing about writing popular psychology is that you want to to actually be popular, and “well, we tested this on college students, and in at least this one iteration of the research, it seems like mayyyybe there’s a relationship between This One Cool Trick and increased performance on IQ tests” has far too many caveats to make for a headline. So we assure you that doing ten jumping jacks before bed will make you pass your math test, and the things we’re a little more certain about get less fanfare.
(In the spirit of fixing that, look at this, it seems pretty conclusive that narcolepsy is the result of an autoimmune response to hypocretin neurons. This doesn’t sound very exciting, but is actually worth at least three large headlines.)
But I’m stuck on a bus, and I started thinking about that claim. A little bit of exercise? I mean, I usually feel better for going for a walk, but I’ve never thought that’s a direct result of exercise. More like inevitable results of the interplay of being away from a to-do list, trading fluorescent light for natural light, and stomping around in the snow. Sure, there’s some very basic cardio happening, but I live in the Midwest, the flattest of flatlands.
…which also got me thinking about how I’ll avoid exercising when I’m having especially bad brain days. There’s significant amounts of societal pressure to exercise–to not just be slim but toned and fit and lean–and heading to the gym uniquely taps into a whole host of too-positive feelings about potentially losing weight and fitting into beauty norms. When you add jerkbrain, then BAM sudden impulses towards obsessive exercising! So I stay away on bad days, and on the good I try to aim my happiness about exercise in the direction of appreciation for strength and endurance building, rather than skinniness.
Which led me to The Hunch*:
It seems unlikely–possible, but unlikely–that exercising briefly is dramatically changing brain chemistry. It seems to improve functioning in moderate depression. It usually improves circulation, which does nice things all over your body. But it also plays into norms about how being a good person means having a gym membership and being healthy (in the colloquial, appearance-based sense).
If we’re going to take the Psych Today quote at face value**–and I’ve been writing on a bumpy bus just so we can–then what if the improvement from just a little exercising is less a function of the actual motions of moving your body, and more to do with the rewards of doing something we’ve been conditioned to associate with being a good person? Sure, there are copious benefits resulting from the exercise -> [mysterious*** brain changes] -> better mental and physical health pathway. But getting them from brief exercise? Seems more plausible that there’s a boost in mood and functioning from doing a societally rewarded action. (“I’m doing a good thing! I am a responsible person!”)
By all means, were this to be correct (and see the part about it being a hunch) this would not be a reason to stop exercising! In fact, it might be a better reason to exercise than ever. Taking advantage of brain quirks, or placebo effects generally, to improve your life is still improving your life.
*I mean it. This is a hunch. Somewhat more than a wild guess, but only because I think “studies this stuff for fun and a diploma” counts for more than Wild Guesser status.
**Also, I’m disinclined to think that it was entirely made up. There’s likely at least one study suggesting this conclusion.
***Not so mysterious, but if I’m going to be hunch-ing, I’d rather not shoot myself in the foot by also demonstrating a poor grasp of neuroscience.