Why Americans Don’t Exercise

In 2017, I could barely leave my house for the better part of a year. I was going through a long-term depressive episode with daily, sometimes hourly, panic attacks, and I didn’t see the point in continuing with it.

Many things helped me survive. When I talked about it in therapy several times a week, it was like opening a pressure valve in my brain: it kept me functioning just enough to get by. Medication had mixed results: I felt less panicky, but also less joy, excitement, and other essential emotions. Crying to friends provided a temporary catharsis. But it wasn’t until I discovered Muay Thai, a form of kickboxing, that it felt like everyday life would offer something other than hopelessness.

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 get out of it completely. When firm but well-meaning coaches yelled at me to improve my form, do five more push-ups, and kick the bag until my shins were red and almost bleeding, it fired up my nervous system. It made me feel human again.

It’s a figure of speech to say that you shouldn’t tell a depressed person to go outside, take a walk, or go for a run. To do so would be to dismiss the severity and reality of their illness, like telling someone with a broken arm to go catch. To some extent, this is true: It’s probably not the best idea to tell someone who is deeply struggling with mental illness to just suck it up and quit. But it’s also true that when someone encouraged me to get outside and use my body, it was exactly what I needed at my lowest moment. I only got into the gym because my friends repeatedly encouraged me to join them for a class, until one day I finally did. It wasn’t a miracle cure, but it made me believe there might be a solution.

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

Many of us know that exercise is good for us. All that’s left is to get rid of us.

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 kind significantly reduced symptoms of anxiety and depression. There are several theories about why this is so: exercise could increase the availability of neurotransmitters like dopamine in the brain, or it could help the brain form new neural pathways useful for escaping cycles of depression. Anyway, exercise is good for our brains.

And the physical consequences of not getting enough exercise are well documented: heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer and many other diseases 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 longer sedentary time was positively correlated with rates of depression. A study from early in COVID found that it was harder for people to stop being depressed if they spent too much time sitting.

Despite the research, Americans have become less active over time. By one estimate, on average, we’re getting 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 guideline of at least 20 minutes of exercise per day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A 2019 study found that we spent 82% of our time sitting.

The decline is significant for children, who need even more physical activity. A 2022 Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth gave the US a D score, concluding that while America was never sufficiently supportive of physical activity, it had become even worse at carving out 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, that number had fallen to below 9%. Far fewer children participate in team sports or walk or cycle to school than in the past, the report shows. In Canada, pediatricians are, as one study put it, so concerned about the decline in physical activity that they are encouraging parents to let children participate in “thrilling and exciting forms of free play where the outcome is uncertain and there is a risk of physical harm.” ‘.

Instead of getting enough exercise, we end up stuck on our phones. We’ve replaced physical stimulation with mental stimulation from our screens. Meanwhile, our brains rot. One study shows that nearly half of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 will suffer from depression or anxiety by 2023. And in recent decades, the incidence of mental illness in teens and children has 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 media are highlighted not using your body: ‘hurkle-durkle’, or ‘bed rot’, involves wrapping yourself in comfortable clothes and bedding and staying in bed long past the time you should wake up. But while there is a time and place to do nothing and relax, Americans don’t really get any rest anymore. Much of the country suffers from chronic undersleeping.

In this trend 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 trying to be active.

Over time, my year from hell faded from my mind. But eventually my workout routine came along. I didn’t need to exercise to stay healthy, I thought, so I stopped. Then I left the Muay Thai gym and completely fell out of the routine. After a few years, depression caught up with me. It wasn’t as catastrophic as before, more of a lingering boredom that was hard to shake. I tried to figure it out in therapy. I tried to intellectualize it. I tried to excuse it: there was no point in trying anything, life was just inherently bad, the political state of the world was scary, the outside world was too expensive. It did not work.

One day, early in the pandemic, when I was prone to languishing in my room for hours, a roommate suggested I go to the tennis court with them 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 major focus in my life. It gave me a new relationship with my body and mind. I had forgotten that exercise, while not a cure for my mental illness, was a necessary precursor to my mental well-being. After years of intellectualizing my sadness and discomfort, I once again had something that got me in my body, got my endorphins going and, most importantly, made me stop thinking about anything other than where I was passing the ball. side of my body. the court.

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

It still makes me depressed sometimes. I still struggle with mental health. But I now feel like I have a reliable way to help myself out. I’m at 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 panacea, but I now see it as a basic baseline. If I don’t move, nothing will help my sad state.

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

PE Moscowwitz runs Mental hell, a newsletter about psychology, psychiatry and modern society. They are also the author of the forthcoming book Rabbit Hole, a combination of memoir and reportage about the role drugs play in our happiness.

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