Physical exercise that involves the rhythmic movement of large muscle groups -- swimming, cycling, running, walking, rowing, and so on -- seems to be most effective in relieving stress or preventing depression, both of which impair cognitive functioning. The routine rhythmic motion of running or walking, in particular, requires little thought or attention. Anyone who has run or walked regularly for even a few minutes knows how the mind seems to open to a flood of thoughts and emotions; solutions to nagging problems suddenly appear like flashing 100-watt bulbs. Fantasies arise. You find yourself thinking of all the smart things you should have said to the cop who gave you that speeding ticket. In fantasy, there’s no limit to your power and ability, and during that magical time, with the blood flowing and the legs pumping steadily, many people find the key to solving whatever problems plague them. It’s a creative, mentally stimulating time for many.
And for those who are troubled by depression, in particular, exercise may unlock the chains of their despair, or at least offer a break from it. Think of an exercise period as a sort of vacation from all the negative thinking and nagging sense of guilt or “what’s the use” that characterize depression. The benefits of this time-out reverberate long after the run or walk is over.
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