Exercise and psychology - why moving matters!

From being an exercise resistor, I have now moved to being an exercise enthusiast and convertor.

Whilst studying for my Masters degree in Positive Psychology, this transformation took place as I undertook a personal experiment with exercise that changed my mind, body and life. This experiment involved increasing my physical/aerobic activity/exercise from next to nothing, to five times a week at 30-minute sessions for a three month period. These levels concur with statutory health bodies advice for improved health and well-being (initial et al., www.nhs.uk/livewell/fitness; O'Donovan et al., 2010; www.cdc.gov, 26.3.2012).

I decided to follow these guidelines and set these behaviours as my experimental goal. I kept a diary log of activities which included running, swimming and dancing and decided to see if research findings could be born out by my personal experience. 

I remember the moment the ‘invitation’ for this change came. It was in the crowded East London University lecture theatre when the lecturer asked us students for a show of hands as to how often we exercised per week. To my astonishment, the number of hands went up as mine went down and yes, these people (‘freaks’ I was thinking) were exercising not just once or twice a week, but five times a week. I felt decidely outnumbered and strangely out of sorts. My perception of reality, expectations and world view had just taken a battering. Faced with a hall full of some of the most passsionate, motivated people I could ever hope to meet (fellow Postive Psychology students) I decided to give it a go and join this alien subset in the student spirit of exploration and growth.  

A growing body of research links physical activity with positive psychology (Mutrie and Faulkner, 2004). A meta analysis of 105 physical exercise studies for example, undertaken in 2009, collated the findings from a total of 9,840 participants (Buck, 2009). These researchers concluded that an optimal level of activity to achieve greatest effect was for 30 to 35 minutes exercise, for between three to five days and for a ten to 12 week duration. Regular exercise is associated with positive psychology in a number of ways. These include enhancements both in terms of physical and psychological health and well-being (Kahneman et al., 1999). 

An initial short-term effect was that I had less spare time and found it difficult to fit exercise into my already full week. This concurs with research findings: only 29% of UK population are exercising three times (at 30 minutes a session) a week and of these, 58% of them are retired. People often report lack of time as a factor in not initiating or adhering to exercise programmes. Despite encountering these difficulties, I was not deterred as my intrinsic motivation was strong. Strong motivation is a prerequisite to change and research shows that intrinsic motivation has a stronger positive effect on the adherence to exercise regimes than extrinsic motivation (Gabriele, Gill and Adams, 2011).

In accordance with the stages of change theory (Logie-MacIver, Piacentini and Eadie, 2012) I moved from contemplation (just thinking about exercising) to the lasting stage of change (maintenance). This involved a change in my self-image and identity from one of being ‘normal’ inactivity to a self perception of being a ‘sporty person’. This change in both behaviour and identity is associated with the lasting stage of change. A consensus statement from the British Association of Sports and Science concluded that a lack of identity with being sporty acted as an engagement barrier for many people with regards exercise engagement (O'Donovan et al., 2010). This was true for me initially, but self-image was challenged in that lecture hall and my motivation to change got ignited. 

I also quickly noticed the exercise effects as positive physical changes: better skin tone and colour, eyes, improved circulation, posture and people reported that I looked well, better and more vital. Surprisingly, people also remarked on how I appeared taller, “have you grown?" some asked and others asked to inspect my shoes to peer at heel height to see if I was wearing high heels. I was not. 

I established only limited and nebulous findings in research, relating to increased height following exercise interventions. I concluded therefore that my height change was due to improved muscular posture, resulting in a change in the bearing of my skeletal frame and therefore in increased height appearance.

 “What are you on?” and “Whatever it is, I want some of that” were some of the comments I received from colleagues. I certainly noticed my own increased energy levels. Both my own perceptions and feedback I received contributed to my improved my self-image. This concurs with a meta analysis of 121 studies which concluded that exercisers had improved body images compared to control non-exercise participants (Hausenblas and Fallon, 2006). 

My enjoyment of exercise increased the more I did it and this tallies with research (Ruby, Dunn, Perrino, Gillis and Viel, 2011). Enjoyment of exercise is fundamental to adherance. I recognised that social support was an essential component for me, so I designed my programme to include this. I enrolled friends to share exercise activites to increase my motivation and adherence (Reis, 2011). Benefits to me were therefore multiplied including both domains of exercise and social connections. Another enhancement was my positive experience of flow connected with exercise. Flow is associated with deep pleasure, total activity absorbtion and challenge, often linked to new learning. I enrolled in an adult ‘Improve Your Strokes’ swimming class at Bath University. I was both challenged, stretched and engaged in learning new strokes which required my total engagement (Kawabata and Mallett, 2011) resulting in my postive experience of flow. 

My sense of improved cognitive functioning, increased with the uptake of exercise (as indicated by perceived speed at processing problems at work, feeling sharper, more ‘on the button’, heightened colour in cheeks and sparkly eyes – indicating increased cerebral blood flow). A meta analysis of 200 studies of physical activity (Etnier et al., 1997) indicated that there was a small indication of increased cognitive functioning (0.25 effect size) following exercise. However, the scientific jury is still out regarding conclusive results, as there was insufficient evidence to substantiate these finding (due particularly to the lack of methodological rigour employed across the studies). 

The effects of exercise helped me discharge stress and recover from it with tangible results. During the particularly difficult time in my life when this eperiment was undertaken (studying, working, personal problems) I found myself at times overwhelmed, tired, stressed and unable to concentrate. However, I found that 30 minutes of aerobic exercise would restore me to feeling balanced and renewed. Toker (Toker and Biron, 2012) found that exercise had a similar a restorative function for workers as it helped them eliminate stress, as well as build resilience acting as a buffer against job burn out. Over the three month period, I found exercise had a significant influence on increasing my energy levels and found it contributed to my positive effect, vigour and zest, as indeed was corroborated by the research of Toker. 

In the longer term, physically the evidence pro exercise now bears significant weight: regular exercise can help reduce the risk of a number of diseases and illnesses by increasing resilience and functioning. It helps reduce obesity, high blood pressure, BMI and body weight, all associated factors of  cardiovascular disease (Murphy, Nevill, Murtagh and Holder, 2007). It reduces risk of type 2 diabetes (Gill and Cooper, 2008), osteoporosis (Perry and Downey, 2012), endometrial cancer (Halvorson, 2011), colon cancer (Trojian, Mody and Chain, 2007), strokes (Vuori, 2010) and dementia ("hedge against dementia with this research trifecta," 2010). 

Exercise has now become an integral part of my life and well-being and I cannot imagine a good life without it. Researchers now indicate that ‘sitting is the new smoking’. With increased sedentary lifestyles (and as a counsellor, I have one of them) I think the challenge for many of us is how to incorporate regular moving/exercise into our daily lives. However it’s essential that we find ways that are personally fun for us, so as to increase enjoyment of the process and adherance to exercise programmes.

In line with current NICE guidelines, I recommend exercise/moving with conviction for everyone, but especially as a postitive psychological intervention for the following: addiction, depression, anxiety, stress, self image, low self-esteem, low efficacy, low confidence, burn out and lack of direction.

Francesca Rinaldi.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Bradford On Avon, Wiltshire, BA15
Written by Francesca Rinaldi, MBACP (Reg) CBT, Positive Psychology, Integrative Counsellor
Bradford On Avon, Wiltshire, BA15

A lifelong passion for dance, movement, massage and bodywork connects with my interest/qualifications in Psychology. Trained in Positive Psychology, I am increasingly aware that research and findings connect the both the body and mind: what was once considered fringe is becoming mainstream eg: NICE guidelines advise exercise for depression.

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