April 2018

The Vital Importance of Physical Exercise

By Brent Kupfer

Attorney at Law

We intuitively know that we should exercise, yet few of us can articulate the reasons why. Certainly, there are many benefits, but this article focuses on two that are particularly relevant to the legal profession: (1) Exercise staves off burnout; and (2) exercise improves cognitive functions. Bonus: for those who are struggling to get moving, see the motivational tips included at the end of this article.

Burnout

It’s no surprise that lawyers suffer from chronic pressure. The stakes are high, the deadlines are imminent, and the work is never-ending. These extrinsic factors can manifest as stress, depression, and anxiety; they can culminate in burnout — this is true even for the most hardened among us. Making matters worse, some only exacerbate the problem with ever larger doses of alcohol. The good news is there’s a healthy alternative: Exercise, a proven relaxant that helps to regulate your mood.

In a recent study, the American Bar Association and Hazelden recently examined these problems (stress, depression, anxiety, and overconsumption of alcohol). The results were, to put it mildly, not good: 28 percent of the test subjects experienced symptoms of depression; 23 percent experienced stress; and 19 percent experienced anxiety. As for alcohol consumption, 20.6 percent of the test subjects “screen[ed] positive for hazardous, harmful, and potentially alcohol-dependent drinking.” The latter finding is especially troublesome because, as this study concludes, “[m]ental health concerns often co-occur with alcohol use disorders …, and [this] study reveal[ed] significantly higher levels of depression, anxiety, and stress among those screening positive for problematic alcohol use.”

But there is hope. Exercise is a formidable counter to the stresses of law. When you exercise, your body produces potent neurochemicals that regulate your mood and make you feel good. Two examples include gamma-aminobutyric acid (colloquially known as “GABA”) and serotonin. The former relaxes you, and the latter makes you happy. Together, they combat stress, anxiety, and depression. And the effect of exercise on depression is especially profound. According to Mark Hyman, M.D., “exercise beats or equals Prozac or psychotherapy as an antidepressant in head-to-head studies.” 

This does not mean that exercise is the sole cure to the above ailments. Each case is unique, and you should exhaust all healthy alternatives that you and your doctor see fit. But it is a great start and can have a tremendous impact on your longevity in this field. 

Cognitive Functions

The practice of law is a battle of wits. To compete, you need to maximize your brain’s potential. Exercise will help you do this. 

In addition to the neurochemicals listed above, exercise releases dopamine and acetylcholine. Dopamine, a pleasure chemical, increases focus and attention. Acetylcholine enhances your thinking process, memory, motivation, and concentration. Exercise also increases neural plasticity and neurogenesis. The former is the process by which your brain develops new neural connections and improves the existing ones. The latter is the growth of new brain cells. 

In effect, exercise enhances cognitive functions. In fact, it is integral to optimal performance. So if you exercise, you’ll have an edge on those who don’t.

How to Get Motivated

There are a lot of great ways to motivate yourself to exercise. You must find what works best for you. But to get started, here are three tips: (1) Do something you like; (2) workout early in the morning; and (3) find workout partners. 

If you do something you like, you’ll be far more inclined to keep at it. Conversely, if you dread the exercise, it will be hard to stick with it. So if you don’t like running, don’t run. If you like dancing, then by all means, dance. As to the second tip, research shows that your willpower diminishes throughout the day. Thus, you are less likely to exercise in the afternoon or evening. So get it out of the way first thing in the morning. It’s a good way to start the day, and you’ll feel good going into work. Finally, find workout partners. They keep you accountable and make the exercise more enjoyable. Plus, group workouts can encourage competition, which can be a powerful motivator indeed.