Let’s get physical

Mrs Jody Forbes, School Psychologist

The world belongs to the energetic
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Next week, Victoria Park will come alive with House colours and excitement as it plays host to the School’s annual Cross Country event. I must confess that during high school I spent a great deal of time and energy (ironically) contemplating how to avoid the Cross Country (and most of my PE classes if I am honest). Strangely enough, it is often we ‘avoiders’ who now regularly frequent local gyms, cycle the suburban streets in spandex clad packs and pay substantial amounts of money for personal training. In his recent Sydney Morning Herald column, psychiatrist Tanveer Ahmed detailed society’s obsession with exercise and suggested it was reaching almost spiritual proportions as ‘personal trainers acquire a moral worth akin to the clergy’. Interestingly, when Reverend Richard Leonard spoke with our Academic Staff in January he made a similar observation in that gyms are becoming the new church. On weekend mornings, for example, there is a 210% increase in attendance at local gyms, and my own straw poll conducted at the 8.20 am Sunday morning pump class revealed that over 60 people were participating. Once adults could be found parked on pews in their church, whereas now many are sporting lycra, sweating to the current Lady Gaga hit while being yelled at – or ‘encouraged’ – by the overly zealous and impossibly fit gym instructor. So why has this trend emerged? Vanity may have a part to play with anecdotal evidence frequently citing an increasing trend towards narcissism in our culture. Vanity aside, there are very real physical, emotional and cognitive benefits to be gained by us all from getting physical.

Exercise is undoubtedly beneficial to the physical health of those engaging in it. Physical activity has been linked with a reduction in cardiovascular disease, diabetes, osteoporosis and some forms of cancers (Environment, Communications, Information Technology and the Arts References Committee, 2006). Beyond the physical benefits however, are the perhaps less discussed but equally important psychological benefits. Anyone who engages in exercise will tell you it makes them feel better immediately after (and not just because it is over!). How lasting these exercise-induced improvements in mental state are has been the subject of much debate and research. Interest intensified following the landmark study by Duke University researchers which discovered that physical activity was as effective as the anti-depressant Zoloft in treating major depressive disorder (Blumenthal et al., 1999). As a result, this ‘natural’ treatment for mental health disorders gained momentum and attempts have been made to clarify the relationship. Due to decreased side effects and better relapse rates, exercise is now more widely prescribed as a treatment for mental health disorders and Britain has adopted it as the first line in treatment for people presenting with depression (Ratey, 2008). Furthermore, as physical inactivity has been identified as a risk factor for the development of depression, exercise could be seen as an essential protective strategy in those predisposed towards a depressive illness (Jacka et al., 2011).

Physical activity has also been shown to help reduce levels of anxiety and the severity of panic responses. Aerobic activity exposes people to the same body sensations felt during anxiety and can condition them to feel less fearful in the presence of these sensations therefore reducing high anxiety sensitivity (Bromam-Fulks, 2004). One study by Strohle and colleagues (2005) demonstrated that, compared to quiet rest, just 30 minutes of treadmill activity significantly reduced panic attacks.

Interestingly, research into the intricacies of exercise and emotions has moved beyond the traditionally held view of an endorphin rush. Scientists now can tell us that exercise increases the levels of certain neurotransmitters related to emotions and thoughts, including serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine (Johnsgard, 2012, Ratey, 2008, Young, 2007), the same neurotransmitters that current anti depressant medications (SSRI and SNRI) target in an effort to enhance or prolong their activity in the brain. As well as the biological impacts there are also psychosocial benefits to physical activity. Relationships have been identified as a major contributor to wellbeing and the social benefits of exercise, via team work or engaging with like-minded people, provide rich opportunities for social connection. Furthermore, a sense of mastery can be achieved due to feeling in control of one’s health and fitness, ultimately boosting self confidence. Exercisers may also experience greater skills in stress and time management as well as coping and problem-solving skills while negotiating the challenges sporting pursuits generally offer.

It is not just those diagnosed with a mental health disorder who benefit from exercise. Additional advantages have been found for people experiencing everyday moods, jitters before an exam, frustration with a friend or stress from a busy day. It is with this knowledge that I spend considerable time talking with students as a cohort, and individually, about their exercise habits and the impacts of these behaviours on their learning and mood. When devising study plans it is important to build in time to stretch, run around the house or do some jumping jacks to get the blood flowing. For those girls who present with anxiety or stress, I suggest going for a run prior to an exam or engaging in regular cardiovascular exercise. Girls who are angry can find benefit from boxing or lifting weights and those feeling sad can make great gains by simply developing the habit of going for an afternoon walk around the neighbourhood – all the more so if it is with a friend, sibling or parent.

As the stress of exams escalates, it is quite common for girls to withdraw from co-curricular sports, particularly once they reach senior school, with the assumption that this will allow them to focus more on their study and therefore improve their results. While this might be true for some students, it is important to consider what research tells us about the correlation between physical fitness and academic fitness. Following physical activity, blood flow increases and results in improved brain functioning, superior information processing, sharper memory and improved concentration. In fact Professor of Psychiatry, John Ratey, believes that ‘exercise is the single most powerful tool you have to optimise your brain function’ (Ratey, 2008, p.245). Ratey goes as far as to assert that the main aim of exercise is to build and condition the brain and the subsequent physical benefits are actually a side effect. Studies conducted in California where the Education Department annually examines the correlations between academic achievement and physical fitness have repeatedly found that fit students score higher on academic tests compared to their unfit peers, particularly in Maths (CDE, 2002, Grissom, 2005). Intriguingly, this relationship appears to be stronger in girls compared to boys. Similarly, Castelli and colleagues (2007) examined the physical fitness and academic achievement of third and fifth graders in Illinois and discovered that better performance in reading and mathematics was related to greater aerobic fitness and lower BMI.

Although it is often only with age, wisdom and perhaps a sagging body that one realises the physical, emotional and cognitive advantages of exercise, there is however much merit in engaging in physical activity while still young. Physical activity has been related to better emotional well being, greater social support and enhanced coping and stress management skills in adolescents (Jacka et al., 2011). Furthermore, experiencing an active childhood is thought to protect against adult depression. Melbourne University researcher Dr Felice Jacka and colleagues investigated the association between adult depression and childhood physical activity in over 2,000 Australian adults. The results suggested that those adults who had engaged in lower levels of physical activity when they were children were thirty-five per cent more likely to report depression in adulthood, despite gender, age and activity levels as adults (Jacka et al., 2011). This finding highlights the importance and influence of early life experiences to adult health and encourages comprehensive school Health Studies and co-curricular programs, both of which exist at Brisbane Girls Grammar School.

Though the Australian recommendation for physical activity for 12-18 year olds is sixty minutes throughout a day, many of our students may not be meeting this. The transition from primary to secondary school coincides with a drop in activity levels for teenage girls and research shows that adolescent boys are more physically active than adolescent girls (Hume, 2006). Time restraints, external pressures and a lack of female sporting role models can all be attributed to this, as too can be the advances in technology and the convenience of the cyber world. Clinical psychologist, Keith Johnsgard, states ‘we are hunter-gatherers, lost in cyberspace’. In many respects life has become too easy with no current need to hunt for food or exert oneself. It is thought that the veering away from the ‘caveman’ lifestyle contributes towards the rise of modern ills, including depression. Thankfully, we do not all have to become triathletes or gym junkies, for when embarking on an exercise program Johnsgard suggests that ‘persistence is more important than boldness’. He recommends walking, even if only initially for ten minutes, and highlights the importance of convenience and social support for sustaining an exercise program.

Some may assert that as a society we have gone too far with our apparent self-indulgent obsession with fitness. However, it is clear that engaging in physical activity impacts positively on one’s physical, cognitive and emotional health. Personally, as an adult I now take the responsibility to manage my stress levels and physical health very seriously. And it is with regret that I look back on my adolescent years and wish that I had possessed the courage to challenge my physical fitness and been offered an education about fitness for life. Fortunately the students of Brisbane Girls Grammar School are offered numerous opportunities to learn about fitness, be active and sustain these habits throughout life. Next Thursday morning at the Cross Country, whether your daughter is one of the competitors who plans to strap on scientifically-engineered running shoes and attempt a PB or simply mosey along the course gossiping with her friends, I expect that the experience will equip her with a better mood and mind for the day ahead.


Ahmed, T. (2012, Feb 3). Fitness fascination stretches the truth. Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 3 Feb from http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/society-and-culture/fitness-fascination-stretches-the-truth-20120202-1qvii.html

Blumenthal, J., Babyak, M., Moore, K., Craighead, W., Herman, S.,  Khatri, P., Waugh, R.,  Napolitano, M., Forman, L., Appelbaum, M., Doraiswamy, P. & Krishnan, R. (1999). Effects of Exercise Training on Older Patients with Major Depression. Archives of Internal Medicine. Retrieved from. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10547175

Broman-Fulks, J. J., Berman, M. E., Rabian, B., & Webster, M. J. (2004). Effects of aerobic exercise on anxiety sensitivity. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 42, 125-136.

California Department of Education (CDE). (2002). California physical fitness test: Report to the governor and legislature. Sacramento, CA: California Department of Education Standards and Assessment Division. Summary retrieved from http://www.mggca.org/MNAHPERD_Links/Large_population_studies/California%20Dept%20of%20Ed/CA%20graphs.pdf

Castelli, D.; Hillman, C.; Buck, S. & Erwin, H. (2007). Physical Fitness and Academic Achievement in Third and Fifth Grade Students. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 29, 239- 252.

Environment, Communications, Information Technology and the Arts References Committee. (2006). Women in Sport and Recreation in Australia. Retrieved 12 March from http://www.wwda.org.au/sportfr06.pdf

Grissom J.B. (2005). Physical Fitness and Academic Achievement. JEP online 2005; 8(1):11-25. Retrieved from http://www.asep.org/files/Grissom.pdf

Hume, C. (2006). Public open spaces-what features encourage children to be active? Retrieved 12 March from http://www.deakin.edu.au/health/cpan/cpandownloads/01research_summary_reports/2.1-Public-open-spaces-(kids-activity).pdf

Jacka, F.N., Pasco, J.A., Williams, L.J., Leslie, E.R., Dodd, S., Nicholson, G.C., Kotowicz, M.A.& Berk, M. (2010). Lower levels of physical activity in childhood associated with adult depression, Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, vol. 14, no. 3, pp. 222-226.

Johnsgard, K, in McHugh, P. (2005, March 17). Feeling Down? It might help if you just take it outside. San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved 30 Jan from http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-in/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2005/03/17/SPGQ8BQH9G1.DTL&ao=all

Ratey, J. (2008). Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. New York: Little Brown & Company.

Strohle, A., Feller, C., Onken, M., Godemann, F., Heinz, A. & Dimeo, F. (2005). The Acute Antipanic Activity of Aerobic Exercise. The American Journal of Psychiatry, 162:12, 2376-2378.

Young, S. (2007). How to increase serotonin in the human brain without drugs. Journal of Psychiatry & Neuroscience. 32(6): 394–399. Retrieved 12 March from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2077351/#r54-1

Leave a Reply