When I started graduate school at Peabody College, which was not yet a part of Vanderbilt University, to study exercise science – which was technically not a major field of study but was the area of health and physical education in which I was interested – I had to take some ‘soft’ courses. That is, courses aimed at understanding concepts of health and wellness.
One of the courses had us read Dr. William Glasser’s “Positive Addiction” which espoused a theory that, and please excuse my memory if not precise, there are some things we humans might do that meet the standard of an addiction, especially in terms of withdrawal, that are good for us. In essence, addiction has a negative connotation but the good doctor was suggesting that exercise could indeed be a positive one.
This has stayed with me for almost 40 years. At the time, I had been accused, as if somehow what I was doing was bad, of being addicted to my Tae Kwon Do training. Back then it was thought that doing a sport vigorously, rigorously and daily, be it jogging or dance or martial arts, was akin to doing drugs: it made you feel good while doing it, but made you feel bad if you couldn’t – like, if you were sick or injured.
Another indicator of an addiction, I should remind you, is if it is not simply something you seek but it’s something that, when you don’t have or can’t do it, affects your total mental state. If so, this borders on a negative addiction.
Another indicator of a negative addiction is if it starts to get in the way of other aspects of life such as work, family, friendships, health, etc.
I guess, in retrospect, I was addicted, but that’s another story. Ask my first wife for more details.
What triggered this essay is a recent study in the Journal of Affective Disorders by Julie Morgan, a PhD student. She found that stopping exercise, even if only in a structured 3-month, 3 days/week, 30 minutes/day exercise program, could throw people into a clinical depression. As her co-author Dr. Berhard Baune said, “In some cases, ceasing this amount of exercise induced significant increases in depressive symptoms after just three days.”
Now, let’s put this in some perspective. The study’s PR piece does not tell us what the authors mean by depressive symptoms “in the absence of the typical biological markers commonly involved with depressive symptoms.” But I would not put too much credence in these conclusions until, as the authors note, further studies are done in this arena.
You see, anyone seriously engaged in an athletic pursuit, be it gardening or walking, running or kicking, or whatever, surely would be upset if weather, prior commitments, injury or illness got in the way for too long. Three days? Perhaps in the serious athlete with highly competitive goals, but not the recreational ones unless they have a negative addiction. In the eating disorders community, these kinds of emotional reactions are more apt to bubble up in the sudden inability to exercise. In otherwise healthy athletes, while disappointing to miss out on training, a few days are put in proper perspective.
Where it might go bad, though, is if the cessation, which was forced upon the subjects, was forced in such a way that the athlete was facing a long layoff, such as with an injury. Athletic injuries and surgeries are often precursors to a depression. I have written about the affects of depression in other articles here, here, and here.
And I’m not going to get into the rah-rah of a coach, teammate, friend or family member to impose on you, the injured athlete, that standard BS that you’ll be ok, you’ll be back in the game at the same level as before. That’s BS when you’re in the thick of the pain and prospect of not being able to do what you loved doing for whatever reasons.
My point is, however, that a positive addiction such as to exercise is not limited to a particular type of exercise. The loss of one’s ability to run does not necessarily mean you can’t get as much from cycling or swimming, or plain old walking. It just means you’ll have to come to grips with the former and develop a similar relationship with the latter.
My friends who watched my martial arts career go from kicker to instructor noted how my transition went pretty seamlessly. While not nearly as fulfilling, I substituted other pursuits in the time and energy slots where the training was. Had this transition been imposed by injury or illness, perhaps a measure of depression might have come upon me. I’ll never know.
But I do know that stopping exercise if you love it is saddening. It’s more likely the loss of power and control, the recognition that pain or infirmity is longer-lasting than anyone would want to endure, and other such factors that might be causing the depression, and not simply the loss of movement itself.
Movement is critical for survival in some environments but not in modern societies. When you choose to make it critical to your survival, the loss of choice might be the perpetrator of your mood state, not the loss of movement per se.
Which brings me back to a recurring theme of mine: we have a choice, we get to make a choice and that comes with the freedom to do it. If you give up your freedom to choose, you have a right to be sad but I won’t give you the right to be depressed about it. For that becomes another excuse to not move, and that’s depressing that you’d make that choice.
I have seen too many clients with too many medical and orthopedic reasons to be depressed and unwilling to exercise who still make their appointments and still do what they can in the context of exercising. In pain, in sadness, they still do it even if they see that progress is not being made. But they assert their freedom to choose how to feel about it, and even those who are legitimately dealing with depression are plugging away.
Movement is only one means of survival in the modern world; but it’s really just a choice you get to make. Make that choice and you’ll beat the depression of not moving.