Dissertation Defense: Julie Maier
Title: EXERCISE IS MEDICINE? A CRITICAL EXAMINATION OF THE PROMOTION OF EXERCISE FOR MENTAL HEALTHCARE
Increasingly, physical activity is being promoted as a way to prevent or treat a range of chronic health conditions, including mental illness. In this dissertation, I utilize an ecological framework and draw upon feminist theories to explore why it is that physical activity is being used as a form of (mental health) therapy in this current moment, as well as the benefits and shortcomings of physical activity in preventing or treating mental illness. In particular, I focus on the ways in which gendered discourses and norms shape the physical activity experiences of women with mental illness. The project entails three separate, yet related, phases: 1) Extensive review of popular and academic literature to contextualize the “exercise is medicine” movement; 2) Assessment of the American College of Sports Medicine and American Medical Association’s “Exercise is Medicine” initiative; and 3) In-depth qualitative interviews with women with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).
The results of my three empirical examinations suggest that physical activity can be a beneficial form of mental health treatment, or a valued part of one’s life and identity more generally. However, too often the limits to physical activity’s effectiveness in treating particular mental illnesses is downplayed, as is attention to the potential harms that can come from being physically active. At times, exercise is even positioned as a “cure”, or superior to psychopharmaceuticals in treating mental illnesses, such as depression. Such enthusiasm toward exercise’s potential therapeutic value can be seen to be, in part, the result of the current neoliberal, healthist moment in which individual responsibility, hard work, and natural remedies are valued over that which is considered easy, quick, or synthetic (Crawford, 1980, Fullagar, 2017; Lupton, 1995). This is not to suggest that physical activity cannot play a vital role in helping people with mental illness, but better messages and more resources are needed to make it accessible, safe, and meaningful to this population. I conclude the dissertation by providing suggestions as to how this can be accomplished.
Committee: Dr. Shannon Jette, Advisor, Drs. Alyssa Zucker, Beth Douthirt Cohen, David Anddrews and Kerry Green