Exercise’s Role in Psychiatric Rehabilitation: How it Can Help Your Brain, Too

Jimmy Choi.
Print icon

Could a few minutes of pingpong, basketball or walking help improve cognition and symptoms of mental health disorders? According to Jimmy Choi, senior scientist at the Institute of Living’s Olin Neuropsychiatry Research Center, the answer is yes.

“We all know physical exercise is good for us, but it is still hard for us to do,” Choi said during a recent IOL Grand Rounds presentation. “There is a mountain of evidence for this.”

Exercise improves cognition and is an effective treatment for depression and anxiety — and the treatment effect is substantial. Physical exercise leads to fewer and less severe symptoms, and better overall mental status.

The Institute of Living has long integrated exercise into its treatment offerings.

“Ever since way back when, the individuals who first formulated treatment plans at the beginning of the Institute of Living talked about the importance of exercise and fresh air,” said Dr. Godfrey Pearlson, director of the Olin Neuropsychiatry Research Center at the Institute of Living. “We’ve come back full circle to those recommendations.”

Choi’s key elements of an effective exercise program:

  1. Intrinsic motivation. “One of the strongest mediators of physical exercise outcome is internal motivation to do the treatment without external reinforcement,” he said. “It seems like the rest of the scientific world is kind of catching up to the IOL. We’ve been doing exercise for decades, and now exercise is becoming a big part of psychiatric rehabilitation programs all over.”
  2. Choice. “When you give people a menu of choices, it increases engagement in exercise and improves their adherence,” he said. “And when people exercise on a regular basis, they’re already supposed to do different things each time to reduce injury and muscle fatigue — so the idea of choice is actually good exercise physiology as well.”
  3. Volitional exhaustion. “Volitional exhaustion is the point when you get your heart rate to a level that makes the exercise beneficial to your cardiovascular system and to your brain,” he said. “When you reach volitional exhaustion, through walking, a game of basketball, or even pingpong, your muscles release a protein that makes its way to the brain and improves brain function. This provides a target for making an impact on symptoms and cognition.”
  4. Integration with other treatments. “Merging exercise with other therapies encourages synergistic benefits,” he said. “Different therapies inform each other. For example, volitional exhaustion creates a window of opportunity, usually within a couple of hours, when the brain is more receptive to learning.”
  5. Consultation with experts. “We have the privilege of having a very well-known exercise physiologist right here at Hartford Hospital, Dr. Beth Taylor,” he said. “Exercise science can inform us and experts help us provide the best physical exercise program for our patients.”

For more information on the Institute of Living, click here.

What's New

Healthy Pumpkin Spiced Latte

Fall Classic: Healthy Pumpkin Spiced Latte

Pumpkin anyone? It’s fall, which means it’s pumpkin season. Pumpkin is certainly an appropriate choice in a healthy diet. Pumpkin is rich in Vitamin A, potassium, fiber and antioxidants like beta-carotene. One cup cooked is only 49 calories, with 12 grams of carbohydrate, 3 grams of fiber and no fat....

Heart & Vascular Institute Has a New Home in the East

Because of the continued expansion of services, the Hartford HealthCare Heart & Vascular Institute has officially moved its Norwich office, formerly located on 164 Otrobando Ave., to a newly renovated 7,000-square-foot space at 111 Salem Turnpike in Norwich (the former Ames plaza).  The new center offers comprehensive and convenient outpatient...


Second EEE Death in State History As More Towns Report Infected Mosquitoes

The first human case of Eastern equine encephalitis of the season, only the second reported in Connecticut history, has produced a chorus of caution from public health officials, medical professions and local communities. The message: Protect yourself from mosquitoes, which transmit the disease, and limit outdoor activity in the twilight...

Suicide Prevention

Suicide Prevention: When People Offering Help Actually Need It

Two recent high-profile suicide deaths of men who worked with those at-risk for suicide highlights the increased suicide rate for those who provide services and care. The importance or raising awareness in September, National Suicide Prevention Month, is highlighted by the deaths of Gregory Eells, the executive director of counseling...

How to Prevent a Suicide? Ask the ‘Guardian of the Golden Gate Bridge’

As a California Highway Patrol Officer, Sgt. Kevin Briggs worked on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, often with suicidal people, but his own struggles with depression made his presentation Sept. 13 even more impactful at the seventh annual World Suicide Prevention Conference at Heublein Hall at Hartford Hospital....

A panel discussion at the World Suicide Prevention Day

Panel: Suicide Prevention Starts with Empathy, Building Connections

As part of the seventh Annual World Suicide Prevention Day Conference Sept. 13, Hartford HealthCare Behavioral Health Network hosted a panel presentation about the role of healthcare providers in suicide prevention. The panel included Behavioral Health Network Physician-in-Chief John Santopietro; Sgt. Kevin Briggs, a retired California Highway Patrol officer and national speaker;...