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Happiness: Walking Your Talk

By keeping pace with patients, a therapist helps them overcome anxiety

Illustration by Christoph Niemann
 

The 40 or so patients who enter Dr. Wayne Sandler’s Century City office each week expect to see a couch; after all, Sandler is a psychopharmacologist. What’s surprising are the two treadmills at the far wall. For five years Sandler has been offering patients the option of walking or running as they unpack their psychic burdens. Whatever pace a patient chooses, the doctor—on his own machine—matches it. Here’s what he’s discovered: While exercising, people open up. “It distracts them from whatever defense structure they use,” Dr. Sandler says. “While doing some activity, they get to subconscious material more quickly.”

Exercise is a natural mood elevator, though how that works is not completely understood. Anyone who’s jogged regularly knows the high that can result from a great run. But endorphins may be just the beginning. Researchers at Princeton University recently published a study indicating that brain cells created during physical activity appear to be calmer and more impervious to stress.

Whatever the physiological reasons, Sandler says he sees clear psychological benefits. Particularly in L.A., where residents walk far less than people in other cities, even the vainest among us can lose sight of the cognitive payoffs of exercise, he says. For living in the moment—a concept Sandler believes is key to contentment—a treadmill can’t be beat. “When you’re moving, you have to be mindful,” he says. “Because if you aren’t, you’ll fall off.”

Skeptics have criticized his therapeutic multitasking. “Someone once said, ‘This is just a way for this doctor to get his exercise in and charge people for it.’?” Undeterred, he prescribes exercise instead of medication for some depressed patients. Others who need medication, he says, find that exercise enhances its positive effects.

As for happiness, Sandler urges his patients to think about what that word really means. Instead of striving to be fearless and happy, he says, “How about brave and appreciative? Appreciative people understand the ups and the downs. The goal is to be able to experience intermittent joy.”