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Healthy Minds Reside in Healthy Bodies

written by Emiliya Zhivotovskaya 21 August 2008

Emiliya Zhivotovskaya, MAPP '07, is the founder of Flourish, an organization dedicated to using research based tools to enable individuals and organizations to flourish. Emiliya fuses the best of Eastern philosophy with Western science to provide people with holistic tools to increase their happiness, well-being, and sense of flourishing. Full bio.

Emiliya's articles are here.

Editor’s Note:  This is the first article by Emiliya Zhivotovskaya, and we are delighted to have her writing.  In the past week, we have also had first time articles by Kirsten Cronlund and Louis Alloro, whom we are also thrilled to welcome as authors.

Have you ever been:

  • So nervous that you made your stomach churn?
  • So excited about something that you could hardly sit still?
  • So worried you wound up sick over it?

These phenomena refer to the psychosomatic principle, that is, the mind’s ability to have physiological effects on the body. There may have been no physical reason for you not sitting still. Electrodes were likely not stimulating your muscles forcing you to be antsy. Your thoughts caused your experience.

A less prevalent concept is the somatopsychic principle (a term introduced by psychologists Nanette Mutrie and Guy Faulkner), and refers to the way in which the body affects the mind. Positive psychology goes hand-in-hand with positive physiology. Having a healthy body supports having a healthy mind. Countless studies support the many benefits of physical activity such as reduced risk for cardiovascular disease and increased bone, muscle and joint health. Physical activity releases positive brain chemicals such as endorphins and serotonin. Other benefits include increased subjective well-being, positive mood and affect, decreased stress and anxiety, improved self-esteem and self-perception, improved sleep quality, and cognitive functioning.

Dog doing yoga


Human beings are mammals meant for movement. A recent study shows that sitting for too long can increase risk for diseases because it has a negative effect on metabolism. Most Americans do not meet the recommended 30 minutes of physical activity, 5 days a week. Not only does exercise counteract health concerns and act as an antidepressant; not exercising is like taking a depressant. Imagine that. Would you take a pill everyday that would make you depressed? Of course not. Sadly, however, many people do.

The other day I was driving through New York City and saw a man walking his dog across the street. However, the man was the only one doing the walking! The dog was sitting in a baby carriage merrily looking around, grinning and tongue hanging out, while his owner pushed him around. I did a double take. It is one thing for adults to make excuses about not exercising enough, but dogs have four feet instead of two for a reason. Could this signal an onset of puppy obesity, potentially escalating at the same frightening rate as childhood obesity?

Walk & Work Treadmill

  Walk the treadmill

What are some things you can do to encourage your somatopsychic life?

  • Go for a walk or a bike ride.
  • Call a few friends and get a basketball game together.
  • Have a lot of e-mails to catch up on? Consider creating a treadmill walk-station. Businesses are buying these cleaver contraptions at $6,000+, you can make your own at home with a treadmill, a lap top, hospital tray table (or piece of wood), keyboard and mouse. See this picture of my Walk-Station. I absolutely love it; I walk while I work.



Mutrie, N. & Faulkner, G. (2004). Physical activity: Positive psychology in motion. In Linley, P. A. & Joseph, S. (Eds.), Positive Psychology in Practice (pp. 146-164). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

University of Missouri-Columbia (2007, November 20). Sitting May Increase Risk Of Disease. ScienceDaily. Retrieved February 15, 2008.

For more on treadmill workstations visit the Mayo Clinic which originated the research.

Image: Dog Yoga.

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Jeff Dustin 21 August 2008 - 1:14 pm

The treadmill desk is a great way to get your cardio in during more sedentary work activities. I tried to buy a cheap Amazon.com treadmill and it was a disaster. This solution requires some investment to succeed.

People give reasons why they don’t exercises. I don’t do it because I simply find it unpleasant, boring, repetitive and uncomfortable. Plus I don’t see losing 10 lbs as a route to greater physical attractiveness. Despite all of its benefits which you made extremely clear, I can’t wrap my behavior around exercise.

So I’d ask you to think about this. What are the key differences between an exerciser and a non-exerciser?

Despite the heterogeneity of the two groups, there probably are trends that are robust enough to recommend courses of action. Some domains to explore might be: cognitive, social, motivational, institutional.

Here is a metaphor that I think sheds light on why people DON’T exercise and possibly why some people DO. I became a vegetarian when I was 23. It wasn’t over the barbarity of slaughterhouses, inhumane conditions for animals, fur wearing or any of that PETA business. No, it was that I ate an aorta. It was NASTY. Sparing details, I vomited. I very rarely ate meat afterwards. Just watching a Wendy’s commercial makes me queasy.

My emotion of disgust effectively kept me on the no-meat diet. I think there is an emotional aspect to exercise which divides into the two camps: pro and con.

Emiliya Zhivotovskaya 21 August 2008 - 1:58 pm

Hi Jeff,

Thanks for your insight. I believe the key difference between exercisers and non-exercisers is that exercisers get the their heart rate up at some point throughout the week. You ate an aorta and understood the importance of that piece of flesh to the life of the animal, likewise having your heart work hard and then relax is important. Will you be personally be miserable if you don’t? Hopefully not. However you have a heart, which is a muscle and it generally likes being used.

If exercise doesn’t vibe with you, how about physical activity? Our ancestors didn’t have gyms with gravity resistant straps. They walked, skipped, jumped, ran, lifted, dug and did other ancestor-ly things.

I love that you brought up additional domains to explore. Social is a great way to take boring physical activity and make it fun. Go dancing with friends. Through a frisbee around. There are lots of ways to turn the mundane into flow. (Check out some of the PPND articles on flow).

Warm regards,

P.S. I too am I happy vegetarian.

Jeff Dustin 21 August 2008 - 3:05 pm


I find the idea of formal exercise repugnant but I do enjoy physical labor. Which leads me to ask, do I need to do more? I chop wood, I haul wood, I move furniture, etc etc. I think I probably am getting the minimum requirements. Yet I’m overweight according to my doctor.
Go figure.

I guess my exerciser v. non-exercise question wasn’t as clear as I’d like. I think what I’m asking is this: what can turn a couch potato into an avid exerciser? Flow?

SteveM 21 August 2008 - 3:32 pm


The obvious question is what about moving furniture makes it pleasurable but moving steel (lifting weights) repugnant? The physical activity is pretty much the same. It’s what’s happening between your ears that is different. Say instead of lifting weights three times a week, (1 hour per session), you followed a furniture delivery truck to homes and helped the workers move furniture for an hour? Would that physical activity be pleasurable or repugnant or something in between?

Maybe following the delivery guys to a job site would be repugnant but moving the furniture is OK. If that would be so, then maybe it’s the trip to the gym that is repugnant but not the exercise itself. I’m not saying it is. I’m merely pointing out that you are generating barriers to exercise that are entirely artifacts. Because if the aversion were complete, you’d never want to engage in strenuous activity at all.

So what’s the catalyst for the selective aversion? I have a feeling you’ve got a little war going on inside your mind. I.e, you are indirectly resisting someone or something. The ironic thing is, is that if your resistance is driven subconsciously by spite your the target of your enmity has no idea. So call a cease fire with yourself and the aversion will go away.

Good Luck,



wayne jencke 21 August 2008 - 7:03 pm

Emiliya, there is a pathway between exercise and positive emotions that you haven’t mentioned.

One of the major benefits of exercise is that it increases Heart Rate Variability (HRV). The Whitehall study of British civil servants found that HRV was the biggest predictor as to whether people would suffer a cardiovascular incident when exposed to high levels of stress. HRV is also used to identify optimal training levels for elite athletes.

One of Barbara Fredrickson’s research students, Bethany Kok, is currently undertaking research that shows that HRV is strongly associated with optimism, morality, social connectedness and satisfaction with life. In her research she concludes that the “vagus nerve (HRV measures vagal nerve activity) may create social connectedness and build social and personal resources over time by motivating positive social attention”.

wayne jencke 21 August 2008 - 7:03 pm

Emiliya, there is a pathway between exercise and positive emotions that you haven’t mentioned.

One of the major benefits of exercise is that it increases Heart Rate Variability (HRV). The Whitehall study of British civil servants found that HRV was the biggest predictor as to whether people would suffer a cardiovascular incident when exposed to high levels of stress. HRV is also used to identify optimal training levels for elite athletes.

One of Barbara Fredrickson’s research students, Bethany Kok, is currently undertaking research that shows that HRV is strongly associated with optimism, morality, social connectedness and satisfaction with life. In her research she concludes that the “vagus nerve (HRV measures vagal nerve activity) may create social connectedness and build social and personal resources over time by motivating positive social attention”.

wayne jencke 21 August 2008 - 7:18 pm

Jeff, Research suggests that weightloss is about reducing calories not exercise. Exercise only becomes important for weight maintenance. See some articles on my blog if you are interested. http://www.innate-intelligence.com.au/blog/?cat=9

SteveM 21 August 2008 - 7:45 pm

The diet-exercise thing is more complex than you might think. First of all, because of differential calorie consumption of a unit mass of fat versus a unit mass of muscle. I.e., it takes more calories to maintain muscle than fat. A muscular guy at 180 lbs can eat more than a fat guy with the same mass without gaining additional weight. Also, weight lifting to failure or hard road training is destructive to muscle tissue. Muscle gets stronger by the recovery process. And that process requires extra energy beyond maintenance. So more resting energy is consumed to repair muscle between workouts. I.e., you burn more calories just sitting around.

The second factor is the mind-body thing. Arnold had it right about “The Pump”. The Pump is real. You wanna get a solid mind-body vibe? Move some good steel for a couple of months. It will not only give you a better body, but also a better attitude. And the chicks will like you more for it too. Now there’s a virtuous circle if I ever saw one. An ancillary benefit is how much more you will enjoy the food that you eat.

If I were a psychiatrist/psychologist, I would prescribe some sort of exercise regimen to EVERY patient. Ideally during the first session. It’s a lot easier to fix broken brain attached to healthy body.


P.S. Resistance exercise is especially important for women as they age. It retards bone loss and allows them to maintain strength and flexibility.

Senia Maymin 22 August 2008 - 9:23 am


I agree about prescribing exercise to every patient. I do. I recommend specific exercise to every coaching client. It changes everything. Thank you.

SteveM 22 August 2008 - 9:52 am


I think it’s fantastic that you integrate physical activity into your coaching paradigm.

I browse through a psychology group occasionally. It’s mostly populated by women addicted to both psycho-therapy and their therapists. Some have been at it for year and years. Therapy as crutch for patient and cash cow for therapist. Ouch!

Apparently, those women are rarely encouraged by their therapists to engage in any positive, benign activity like even taking a walk around the block.

To ignore prescribing the simplest components of positive life management is almost mal-practice in my book.


Kathryn Britton 22 August 2008 - 11:32 am

To SteveM’s comment about resistance training for women:

1) Osteoporosis is becoming more common in men as they age. So we women don’t have a corner on bone loss.

2) I’ve been a fan for years of Miriam Nelson’s book “Strong Women Stay Young.” But then I goofed. I started up again after months of not using her exercises and didn’t crank the weight back far enough. Now I’m going through physical therapy to address pain in my left shoulder. Care is needed.

3) Even the physical therapy is generally beneficial, since I’m learning more all the time about keeping the muscles in my shoulder in balance and working in the right order. That’s one complicated joint.


SteveM 22 August 2008 - 3:47 pm


I know this a psych, not fitness forum. Let me close out my contribution with this.

Unfortunately, many older people who try weight training without the assistance of a trainer, use incorrect form and risk injury. A one or two month relationship with a personal trainer at a Gold’s Gym or the Y or wherever is probably a good investment to start off on the right track.

A “mistake” many older people make when training is doing so with insufficient intensity. No pain – no gain is an absolutely bogus approach. But low stress workouts without real physical challenge provide little benefit. A trainer can give you some good advice there about an appropriate intensity level.

Back when I was a real athlete, I had a rotator cuff problem and I know how painful and persistent that can be. Another benefit of a trainer or physical therapist is that she can design a workout regimen around your injury. Too many people suffer an injury and become totally sedentary. Which often leads to abandonment. The current thinking in physical therapy is to stay active. “If it don’t hurt – you can do it.”

Anyway, that’s my spiel on fitness. It’s Friday. I have martinis to drink and skirts to chase…



Wayne Jencke 22 August 2008 - 4:55 pm

SteveM, Kathryn & Senia, steves comment that “low stress workouts without real physical challenge provide little benefit” appears to be contrary to much of the latest research (Steve can you provide the research about little benefit). There is substantial research that low intensity weights have profound benefits. And the big advantage is that you don’t risk injury (as in Kathryns case)

Kathryn – you can practice mindfulness when you use weights. Light load and very slow reps timed to your breathing. When your thinking starts to wander you go back to a focus on the aspect of the exercise.

SteveM 22 August 2008 - 6:51 pm


There a tons of references. Here’s something simple from a page called Weight Training 101:

If you’re setting up your own program, you’ll need to know some basic strength training principles. These principles will teach you how to make sure you’re using enough weight, determine your sets and reps and insure you’re always progressing in your workouts.

1. Overload: To build muscle, you need to use more resistance than your muscles are used to. This is important because the more you do, the more your body is capable of doing, so you should increase your workload to avoid plateaus. In plain language, this means you should be lifting enough weight that you can ONLY complete the desired number of reps. You should be able to finish your last rep with difficulty but also with good form.

2. Progression. To avoid plateaus (or adaptation), you need to increase your intensity regularly. You can do this by increasing the amount of weight lifted, changing your sets/reps, changing the exercises and changing the type of resistance. You can make these changes on a weekly or monthly basis.

3. Specificity. This principle means you should train for your goal. That means, if you want to increase your strength, your program should be designed around that goal (e.g., train with heavier weights closer to your 1 RM (1 rep max)). To lose weight, choose a variety of rep ranges to target different muscle fibers.

4. Rest and Recovery. Rest days are just as important as workout days. It is during these rest periods that your muscles grow and change, so make sure you’re not working the same muscle groups 2 days in a row.

I’m not saying that anything is not better than nothing. It’s just not whole lot better.


P.S. Guess I won’t be seeing you at the gym…

Wayne Jencke 22 August 2008 - 7:17 pm

SteveM – I would appreciate seeing any research(not text books which are often peoples opinions) showing that high intensity weights are more effective than low intensity weights with regards to health outcomes.

Have to rush as I’m off to the gym – doing a step class.

Cathy Hartt 22 August 2008 - 7:50 pm

Wayne – I found it interesting about heart rate variability. This is exactly what we are monitoring with fetal heart monitors – variability that is influenced by the nervous systems and a healthy circulatory system. Thanks for sharing your insight.

PS – I love to walk, hike, garden – but when the snow flies, well, I hate gyms. Now I have a couple of chronic illnesses that will benefit if I do not go dormant in the winter. Walking on ice is not a good option – so that limits things. And much of the exercise needs to be weight bearing so some swimming (which I like) is OK but not all the time. I started wearing a pedometer and average about 9,000 steps a day 9 months a year. Winter dips to a couple of thousand/day. Any thoughts welcomed!

Wayne Jencke 23 August 2008 - 5:15 am

Cathy, I found some research that says that tai chi is almost as effective as a brisk walk for raising hrv. Perhaps this is something you can do during those winter months. Check out my blog for the reference.


SteveM 23 August 2008 - 7:40 am


It has been well established that training benefit is not a simple linear function of intensity. See the great book by sports psychologist James Loehr “Toughness Training for Life” which does a terrific job of explaining the absolute requirement for working beyond a level of maintenance stress to toughen in any component of your life.

I’m not trying to mix it up here. Ambling to the gym for a low intensity step class may provide pleasure in some way. However, setting the bar that low as a theoretically optimum training model for others who do not know better about how toughening works does them a disservice.



SteveM 23 August 2008 - 7:56 am


OBTW, a simple Google Scholar search turns up scores of academic references that support the value of appropriately challenging exercise. Here’s one:

The benefits of strength training for older adults.

American Journal of Preventive Medicine , Volume 25 , Issue 3 , Pages 141 – 149 R . Seguin


Aging is associated with a number of physiologic and functional declines that can contribute to increased disability, frailty, and falls. Contributing factors are the loss of muscle mass and strength as age increases, a phenomenon called sarcopenia. Sarcopenia can result or be exacerbated by certain chronic conditions, and can also increase the burden of chronic disease. Current research has demonstrated that strength-training exercises have the ability to combat weakness and frailty and their debilitating consequences. Done regularly (e.g., 2 to 3 days per week), these exercises build muscle strength and muscle mass and preserve bone density, independence, and vitality with age. In addition, strength training also has the ability to reduce the risk of osteoporosis and the signs and symptoms of numerous chronic diseases such as heart disease, arthritis, and type 2 diabetes, while also improving sleep and reducing depression. This paper reviews the current research on strength training and older adults, evaluating exercise protocols in a variety of populations. It is clear that a variety of strength-training prescriptions from highly controlled laboratory-based to minimally supervised home-based programs have the ability to elicit meaningful health benefits in older adults. The key challenges as this field of exercise science moves forward are to best identify the most appropriate strength-training recommendations for older adults and to greatly increase the access to safe and effective programs in a variety of settings.

Here’s an excerpt from an abstract in the New England Journal of Medicine:

Exercise Training and Nutritional Supplementation for Physical Frailty in Very Elderly People

Conclusions High-intensity resistance exercise training is a feasible and effective means of counteracting muscle weakness and physical frailty in very elderly people. In contrast, multinutrient supplementation without concomitant exercise does not reduce muscle weakness or physical frailty.

All of this stuff seems pretty self-evident to me. I don’t get how there can be any contention here.


Wayne Jencke 23 August 2008 - 2:55 pm

Steve, I’m agreeing that resistance training is beneficial – but the question is how much. I quickly looked at the research in pubmed on weight training for the elderly, and the weights that they ended up lifting were quite modest. Yet they still had profound benefits on measures like bone density, depression and life satisfaction.

By the way – don’t get me wrong. I’m an exercise junky. I use super slow workouts as the research shows that they are almost as beneficial as normal workouts but with lower weights – and hence less risk of injury. I also build my mindfulness practice into the workout ie getting the mind body thing happening.


Christine Duvivier 25 August 2008 - 2:03 pm


Thanks for the great article– I thoroughly enjoyed it– especially the new term, “somatapsych.” You made a great point about a broad concept of physical activity, as some people like to be active (sports, dance, walking, etc.) but don’t like gyms or monotonous machines.


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