… minus the fekakte editing. Hope you like it!

Exercise sheds its heavy, punitive connotations

Exercise. It’s a dirty word, invoking punishing routines at the gym, sweat rags and Spandex-clad aerobics instructors urging patrons to “step it up, people!”

That needn’t be the case, according to University of Colorado at Boulder Professor of Integrative Physiology Monika Fleshner, who is also affiliated with the university’s Center for Neuroscience.

Fleshner, who gave a lecture at Smith Monday titled “The Stress Buffering Effects of Exercise: Immune Consequences & Sympathetic Nervous System Mechanisms,” has made it her life’s work to study the effects of physical fitness on stress and depression.

Using animal models, Fleshner and her lab have established time and time again the protective capacity of physical activity against mental distress.

In the lab, rats exposed to a stressor will exhibit what is known as a “depressive response,” commonly refusing food and sex and choosing to lie dormant in their cages instead. If given a running wheel, however, the same rats will choose to run throughout their waking hours and will no longer show signs of behavioral depression, even when exposed to simulated stressors.

Fleshner has also noted that forcing rats to run (i.e. forcing the animals to run on her, rather than their own, schedule) does not confer the same decrease in depressive symptoms. Rather, the forced exercise-condition rats exhibit the same aversion to food and sex seen in their “depressed” counterparts.

Fleshner extrapolates from such findings, arguing that human beings must develop ways to make exercise a “natural” part of our lives, rather than yet another item to check off each day. Furthermore, Fleshner believes that exercise “makes evolutionary sense,” as humans evolved to live in environments in which physical activity was the norm.

Smith students, faculty and staff also struggle to make exercise normative and enjoyable, rather than something that they “should” do. Director of Athletics Lynn Oberbillig exercises to “feel better, [for] weight control… [to] feel strong” and to help her injured back heal. Oberbilling greatly enjoys her regular workouts, which alternately comprise pilates, strength training and walking. She also golfs on a regular basis. For Oberbillig, “working out” is enjoyable only if it requires mental, as well as physical, dedication.

Jessica Wignall ’13, who is pre-med, quantifies exercise as “anything that makes me sweat. Running, spinning, lifting weights, etc.” Wignall also enjoys her workouts, and considers her primary motivation for maintaining a regular fitness routine to be stress reduction, a true necessity as she navigates a challenging and unyielding course load.

Anna Burke ’12 put it in more dire terms. “If I don’t exercise, I am absolutely miserable. Ideally, when I have time, I go for about a half-hour run and do some ab exercises,” but said that she sometimes only has time for a 20-minute run. Burke runs outside if the weather allows, and occasionally alternates her running with a swim. Time, she said, sometimes “gets in the way.”

Burke enjoys being active “most days. On a really good day, I’ll do it [exercise] because I enjoy it, but otherwise I know that if I do it, I’ll be happier and have more energy.” Burke also mentioned that her attitude towards exercise has evolved over the years, and has come to be as of late more of an “enjoyment thing.”

The question then becomes of course how to inspire Smith students to adopt regular fitness routines that renew and reinvigorate, rather than eliciting that forced feeling that is all too common.

Oberbillig has some ideas. While she would “love it” if every student visited the gym regularly, Oberbillig places a premium on providing a variety of physical activities for students to choose from, and hopes that “each person can find something to do, whether it is working out alone, taking a class with others, attending Get Fit [Smith, the college-sponsored not-for-credit fitness classes], learning a new skill or sport, [or] climbing a wall.”

Said Oberbillig, “exercising is a lifetime commitment to good health and a strong heart. If students develop a good pattern, then they are more likely to continue as adults. Even if you stop exercising for a period of time, you will come back to it eventually, and that is what we hope students learn.”

Indeed, Fleshner maintains that one need not “be an athlete to get a lot of the mental health benefits” of exercise.

Move thyself, it seems, and good health will follow.