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Exercise, Brain Function and Depression

Randy Wilson


Not long ago, a group of some of the smartest folks in golf maintenance approached a powerful entity about presenting a class or a panel or a Ned Talk dealing with the mental pressures faced by the modern turf pro.  I don’t know the backstory on this, but from what I surmised from a few tweets, it was received with a negative vibe.  However, I do know that in Rockbottum CC Philosophy 201, a basic tenet states:  “Insecure folks, when presented with a great idea, will often suppress it until they can find a way to make it look like it was their idea in the first place.”

Insecure folks, when presented with a great idea, will often suppress it until they can find a way to make it look like it was their idea in the first place...”

So, the choices are:  Either be patient until the insecure entity in question can spin it their way or just go off and do it on your own.  So, right here, right now, I intend to step into the fray and talk about brain chemistry and the link to depression.  Before those of you with deep roots in academia and red tape begin to caterwaul, allow me to state that I am not a trained psychologist, nor do I play one on TV and I didn’t stay in a Holiday Inn last night... but I have successfully manipulated my brain chemistry without exogenous sources.   

There is a method that can work for a lot of people—not everyone—but I've seen amazing results in my own tiny brain and there are a number of recent studies that indicate this technique is worth a try.  What am I talking about?  Before I blurt it out and you stop reading, just hang with me for a few minutes.  What many of us have suspected for decades just might be true:  Exercise has a pronounced effect on brain chemistry.

While exercise is typically tied to weight loss and heart health, it now appears that exercise has a minimal effect in that area when compared to diet.  But the effect exercise has on brain function, especially on mood adjustment, is very significant. 

I was exposed to exercise and brain chemistry adjustment at an early age.  Dad was a paratrooper and he ran every day.  This was years before anyone heard of “jogging” and the family always noticed how much better Dad's mood was after his run.  At that time, the civilian term for Dad was “exercise nut”, but it was normal behavior in the Airborne.  Most of Dad’s colleagues used additional brain adjustments, mostly in the form of beer, but Dad stuck with running, swimming and isometric strength training.

Dad was a paratrooper and he ran every day.  This was years before anyone heard of “jogging” and the family always noticed how much better Dad's mood was after his run.

I hated endurance training in any form and avoided it like flu shots or algebra, but one day, while serving in the Army, I accidentally discovered the true miracle of exercise.  In one unit, I was forced to show up at 0510 hrs—five days a week—and run five miles at a leisurely 7:00 minute pace.  In a less hardened unit—okay, a cupcake unit—it was 0600 and four miles at an 8:00 minute pace.  It didn’t matter which type of run, we always showed up angry, grumpy and sullenly uncooperative.  I mumbled the same complaints, no matter the weather:  “I can’t believe they’ve got us out here running in the ___ (cold, rain, snow, heat, dark--choose 3) just to satisfy some sadist.”

At the end of the run, we always came in happy as hogs in mud, glowing with endorphins and filled with a sense of brotherhood, vowing to see everyone first thing the next morning.  (Where we showed up and bitched for ten minutes.)  I recognized a pattern here, but did nothing to alter my behavior.

After the Army, I continued to self-medicate with endorphins, especially when faced with maintaining bentgrass in the Atlanta heat.  This was in the days when the stress of running a golf course was beginning to ramp up, due to television, competition for golfer dollars amid the surge in golf construction--and an uptick in arrogant, newly rich golfer/members all thinking they were Thurston Howell the 7th.

Mike, my brother and I, took up racing road bicycles to offset the stress that was building in our brains and it worked so well that we did it for many years.  Some would say we did it for the competition, but when you only win one race in 30+ years, you ain’t doin’ it for the racing. 


Later, while working for a big municipality, I encountered additional stress generated by having to leave the course on Friday morning and spend the day in staff meetings and bureaucrat training, often with angry desk riders.  In order to keep from joining in the melee and howling like everybody else, I made durn sure that I was soaked in brain opiates every Friday morning.  This was accomplished by the Thursday night training ride, hammering along with the young racers until I exploded in a mist of lactic acid.  Sometimes I just got to work very early on Friday and ruck-marched around the back nine with a 50 pound ruck--as fast as I could go.  

Then, I endured the bureaurat meetings while floating in a cloud of post-exercise brain chemicals, sometimes so blown out that I even bought doughnuts for the desk riders.  (Not out of pity, more to jack up the intensity of the meeting, for entertainment’s sake.)   One of the brain chemicals present at the meetings was cortisol, the "fight or flight" fuel.  The big problem with cortisol was always getting rid of it.  If the brain dumped it into the system and you didn’t fight or flee, then it remained in the system like some kind of toxic waste and that was a bad thing.

There were days Buddy and I rode our bikes to work--40 miles one way--and on those days, nothing the golf course or the bureaurats could throw at us had any effect.

Over the years, I taught myself as much as I could learn about exercise.  I even took up coaching strength and conditioning for high school football and I saw the positive mental effects it had on young men.  I was even able to coach young cyclists and devised a training program to help Buddy place in the World's Championship of 24hr Mountain Bike Endurance racing.


After I switched to writing and producing films for TurfNet, I continued to use exercise as my primary mood altering chemistry.  (The others don’t work for me—except maybe coffee.)  There have been many times a column or a script has mired me down in frustration, but after a hard ride or a long hike or a trip to the gym, lo and behold, my elderly brain starts firing on both cylinders.  (This particular column has required several trips to the weight room.)

Again, I’m not a mental health pro, so don’t listen to me.  But, for those of you who need scientific references, here’s a film on brain chemistry and depression:  “How Exercise Treats Depression”:

For those who prefer their science laced with quick cuts of The Simpsons, try this called:   “Why Exercise is So Underrated”

And for those who don’t want to hear any science talk, preferring just the Skeletal Wisdom of Rockbottum CC, maybe you could try indoor cycling, especially the kind that links up on the net to other riders.  It's sort of like training while playing a video game.

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3 hours ago, Paul MacCormack said:

Love this Randy, exercise is absolutely an essential part of a healthy greenkeeping lifestyle. 

Great information Randy...for the past 25 years I can back up your thoughts on exercise completely.  Love what it does for mood enhancement, energy, stress reduction, ability to concentrate, composure and on and on and on. Thanks for sharing! 

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Again, not much scientific backup here but I believe that electro-magnetic (file:///C:/Users/anand/Downloads/349-629-1-SM (1).pdf) current flows thru all living organisms and exercise, breathing and physical yoga, meditation, tai-chi, acupuncture etc. are all ways to remove any blockages in this flow. The Indian word for this flow is "prana"  and the Chinese word is "Qi" which roughly mean "life force".  A good teacher can literally see where your blockages are just by observing your breathing and posture. Some of the blockages can be caused by past traumas and if left unattended can turn into debilitating disease. 

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Paul, thanks for commenting, seeing as how you are a leading force in this area.

Bryan, 25 years of training is pretty impressive.  Hit me on the pm and tell me what kind of training you favor.

Anil,  "prana" sounds like something Dave Wilber would understand very well.  I might be too simple-minded to grasp the Eastern ways. 


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Back when I started, helmets were leather and optional and besides, I was climbing in that photo and as soon as I think of another excuse, I'll use that one, too.

If I was a gifted time trialist like you, I would wear one of them George Jetson helmets.  But I was just a sprinter and they are known for brain glitches.

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