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Why Americans Don’t Exercise: Mental Health, Depression, and Fitness

For most of 2017, I could barely leave my house. I was experiencing a prolonged depressive episode with daily, sometimes hourly, panic attacks, and I didn’t see the point in continuing.

Many things helped me survive. Talking about it in therapy several times a week was like opening a pressure valve in my brain—it allowed me to function just enough to get through it. The medications had mixed results: I felt less panicked, but also less joy, excitement, and other essential emotions. Crying to his friends provided temporary catharsis. But it wasn’t until I discovered Muay Thai, a form of kickboxing, that I felt like everyday life could bring something other than despair.

Every other form of healing I had tried had focused my mind – its disordered thoughts and supposed chemical imbalances. What I hadn’t tried was to escape completely. When firm but well-meaning trainers yelled at me to fix my form, do five more push-ups, and kick the bag until my shins were red and almost bleeding, it jump-started my system nervous. It made me feel human again.

It’s a trope to say you shouldn’t tell a depressed person to go outside, take a walk, or run. This would be ignoring the severity and reality of their illness, like telling someone with a broken arm to go play catch. To a certain extent, this is true: it’s probably not the best idea to tell someone who is deeply suffering from a mental illness to just let go and get through it. But it’s also true that when someone encouraged me to get out and use my body, it was precisely what I needed at my lowest moment. I only ended up at the gym because my friends repeatedly encouraged me to go with them to a class until one day I finally did. It wasn’t a panacea, but it made me believe that a solution could exist.

Many of our collective crises—depression, anxiety, anxiety, and loneliness—are compounded by the same thing: our tendency toward a sedentary, cooped-up lifestyle. We live in a society in which it is extremely difficult to find the time and space to be active. Plenty of research shows that exercise is good for depression, and yet most of the time when I hear people talk about the mental health crisis – on TikTok, on X, and in real life – it’s rarely mentioned. In my experience, it’s much more common to hear people talk about the need to find the right diagnosis, the right medication, and the right type of therapy than it is to see people encouraging their loved ones to come out.

Many of us know that exercise is good for us. All we have to do now is get off our asses.

There is overwhelming evidence that physical activity is good for both our bodies and our brains. A meta-review of studies involving 128,000 participants found that exercise of any type significantly reduced symptoms of anxiety and depression. There are several theories as to why: exercise could increase the availability of neurotransmitters like dopamine in the brain, or could help the brain form new neural pathways useful for escaping cycles of depression. Either way, moving is good for our brain.

And the physical consequences of not moving enough are well documented: heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer, and a host of other illnesses are linked to low physical activity. It’s also bad for our mental health: a 2014 meta-analysis of more than 100,000 people found that increased sedentary time was positively correlated with rates of depression. A study done early in the COVID-19 pandemic found that it was harder for people to stop being depressed if they spent too much time sitting.

Depression is a vicious cycle; it pits your brain against itself.

Despite research, Americans have become less active over time. By one estimate, we do an average of 27 minutes less physical activity each day than we did 200 years ago. And in recent decades, only about a quarter of American adults have met the recommended guidelines of at least 20 minutes of exercise per day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A 2019 study found that we spend 82% of our time sedentary.

For children, who need even more physical activity, the decline is stark. A 2022 report on physical activity for children and youth gave the United States a grade of D-, concluding that America, although it has never adequately supported physical activity, was even worse in its ability to reserve space and time for it. In 2007, an estimated 30% of adolescents completed the recommended 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity each day. By 2020, this figure had fallen below 9%. According to the report, far fewer children are participating in team sports or walking or biking to school than in the past. In Canada, as one study puts it, pediatricians are so concerned about the decline in physical activity that they encourage parents to let children engage in “exciting, exciting forms of free play that involve uncertainty about to the outcome and a possibility of physical injury.”

Instead of getting enough exercise, we are forced to lounge on our phones. We have replaced the bodily stimulation of the real world with the mental stimulation of our screens. Meanwhile, our brains are rotting. In one study, nearly half of Americans aged 18 to 29 reported experiencing depression or anxiety in 2023. And in recent decades, mental illnesses among adolescents and children have increased.

Instead of looking at the situation and concluding that we all need to exercise more, some people do the opposite. Certain trends circulating on social networks highlight not using your body: “hurkle-durkle,” aka “bed rot,” involves wrapping yourself in comfortable clothes and sheets and staying in bed well past the time you should be waking up. But while there is a time and place to do nothing and relax, Americans don’t get much rest. Much of the country suffers from chronic sleep deprivation.

In this tendency, I see the logic of depression: the feeling that nothing can or will change so there is no point in trying. It seems that much of America has given up on trying to be active.

Over time, my year of hell faded from my mind. But eventually, my exercise routine followed. I do not have need exercise to stay sane, I thought, and so I stopped engaging in it. Then I walked away from the Muay Thai gym and completely abandoned the routine. After a few years, depression caught up with me. It wasn’t as catastrophic as before, more of a persistent annoyance that was hard to shake. I tried to understand it in therapy. I tried to intellectualize it. I tried to excuse it: there was no point in trying anything, life was just bad in itself, the political state of the world was scary, the outside world was too expensive. It didn’t work.

I’ve gotten to the point where exercise – being in my body, sweating – is more important to me than more mind-focused forms of therapy.

Then one day, early in the pandemic, when I tended to languish in my room for hours, a roommate suggested I come to the tennis court with him for an hour. I was immediately hooked. Playing tennis with friends several times a week was not only fun, and it not only helped me get in shape: it became a focal point of my life. It brought me a new relationship with my body and my mind. I had forgotten that exercise, while not curing my mental illness, was a necessary precursor to my mental well-being. After years of intellectualizing my sadness and discomfort, I again had something that brought me into my body, got my endorphins going, and most importantly, made me stop thinking about other things. thing than where to place the ball on the other side of the field. the tribunal.

Depression is a vicious cycle; it pits your brain against itself. When I was at my worst, the standard advice of “don’t tell a depressed person what to do” didn’t help me because I needed someone to help me break the cycle by telling me to stop repeating the same patterns. What saved me were friends who helped me get out of the house, suggested I join the gym with them, or encouraged me to do anything to get out of the house. head.

I still get depressed sometimes. I still have mental health issues. But now I feel like I have a reliable way out. I’ve gotten to the point where exercise – being in my body, sweating – is more important to me than more mind-focused forms of therapy. It’s not a magic cure, but I now consider it a fundamental foundation. If I don’t move, nothing will fix my sad state.

SSRI prescriptions continue to rise and more people seek treatment, but rates of depression and anxiety remain extremely high. If you’ve tried almost everything else, why not just get moving?

PE Moskowitz short Mental hell, a newsletter on psychology, psychiatry and modern society. They are also the author of the upcoming book Rabbit Hole, a combination memoir and feature story about the role drugs play in our happiness.


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