Editor’s Note: Marie-Josée Salvas is highlighting the research behind self-regulation and exercise to expand on the March optional theme of “What is your favorite application of research in positive psychology?”
If you met Denni Chipollini before one of his speaking engagements, you’d see his communicative smile and feel his positive attitude. But you’d never guess what the story behind his energy is.
On a rainy September morning of 1989, Denny was going to work, driving along the Pennsylvania Turnpike when his car suddenly hydroplaned. Denny lost control of his vehicle and slid violently into a guardrail. “The guardrail literally pierced my car from side to side, coming in from the driver’s side all the way through the passenger-side door,” he remembers.
“I didn’t feel anything at first. There was smoke, glass and dust everywhere. Then I saw my left leg on the dashboard – it had been completely severed below the knee – and my right foot was on the passenger side, attached by just a few pieces of skin and an artery. That’s when I felt the most incredible rush of pain imaginable.”
Denny panicked, and then his survival instincts kicked in. “My wife was 7 months pregnant with our first son, so I couldn’t let myself go! Right then and there, I learned the power of visualization. I closed my eyes and imagined a group of caring and capable doctors taking control of the situation. Willing myself into as calm a state as possible seemed to decelerate my blood loss.”
Paramedics arrived, and Denny was rushed to the hospital by helicopter. Doctors did all they could to save his legs. The miracle of medicine worked for one of them. The other had to be amputated above the knee.
It took almost 4 months and 15 operations before doctors had completed their work on Denny’s legs. Their final verdict was that rehab was pointless – Denny would never walk again.
To which he immediately replied: “You wanna bet?”
The very next morning, Denny began lifting dumbbells from his hospital bed. He still could not move his lower body, but he trained all the muscles that cooperated. “I was told I could spend the rest of my life on welfare. I refused to accept the diagnosis and instead started my own rehab. I spent time imagining myself go to work, walk around the grocery store and do the little everyday tasks that require walking. I couldn’t get up on my legs, so I was crawling around the house alongside of my baby boy. He and I learned to walk together.”
Three years later, Denny was able to walk again. Today, he is an accomplished athlete. He graduated from climbing up the stairs to competing in 5 mile runs, half-marathons and even full marathons and triathlons.
Denny’s story is extraordinary, and particularly inspirational because he didn’t use any resources that are out of reach. What happened was a series of small miracles of everyday life, fueled by a large dose of determination and self-regulation.
Denny’s mantra was “No excuses, no limits.” In his words, “The most important disability isn’t physical. It’s the lack of accountability and discipline to take action that is most disabling.”
In this month where PPND asked its authors to discuss some of their favorite research findings, I wanted to share Denny’s story to highlight how self-regulation and exercise go a long way. I know that for many, self-regulation and exercise sound boring, even painful, but the effort required is minimal compared to the consequences of a lifestyle deprived of their benefits.
We know from Roy Baumeister’s research that self-regulating in one life domain can have a spill-over effect on other domains. Denny started by applying discipline to his workout regime. “I knew from physical exercise that what you think is the limit really is just a glass ceiling to be broken.” This knowledge gave him power and mental strength. “And it was a great stress and anxiety reliever!”, so it also enabled him to better manage his emotions.
Research on exercise tells us that the benefits Denny experienced are common. Several studies have shown that physical activity promotes self-confidence and psychological well-being. It contributes to curing anxiety and depression. It maintains the brain healthy by facilitating brain cell growth. It is an effective weight and energy management strategy. Exercise is also associated with a reduced risk of developing heart disease, diabetes, high bold pressure, high cholesterol and certain cancers such as colon and breast cancer.
So it seems like regulating through exercise doesn’t only lead to the spill-over effect Baumeister explains happen between different domains of life. It appears that the benefits also spread to different aspects of a person – like their inner and outer strength, for example.
It is very curious to me that many react with sarcasm to articles on the potential spill-over benefits of exercise. To see one such example, see here. In an article entitled “Positive Psychology and Health Psychology: A Fruitful Liaison”, authors Shelley Taylor and David Sherman explain that fear may actually undermine health behavior changes. Maybe people who discredit the benefits of exercise are actually fearful of the consequences of their own inactive lifestyles? If that’s the case, then Denny is right: the lack of accountability and discipline is a significant disabling factor.
Denny now devotes his career to inspiring and educating people of all ages to overcome adversity, accept diversity, and to live with “no excuses, no limits.” He will join us online and respond to your comments here on PPND.
All images used with permission of Denny Chipollini.
Babyak, M., Blumenthal, J. A., Herman, S., Khatri, P., Doraiswamy, M., & Moore, K. et al. (2000). Exercise treatment for major depression: Maintenance of therapeutic benefit at 10 months. Psychosomatic medicine, 62(5), 633-638.
Baumeister, R. F., Gailliot, M., DeWall, C. N., & Oaten, M. (2006). Self-regulation and personality: How interventions increase regulatory success, and how depletion moderates the effects of traits on behavior. Journal of personality, 74(6), 1773-1801.
Brooks, D.S. (2004). The Complete Book of Personal Training. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
Loehr, J. & Schwartz, T. (2003). The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy, Not Time, Is the Key to High Performance and Personal Renewal. New York: Free Press.
Ratey, J. (2008). Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. New York: Little, Brown and Company.
Taylor, S.E. & Sherman, D.K. (2004). Positive Psychology and Health Psychology: A Fruitful Liaison. In P. A. Linley & S. Joseph (Eds.). Positive Psychology in Practice (pp. 305-319). New York: John Wiley & Sons.