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An Athletic Academic Discovers Exercise As Medicine

Stephanie Held
May 31, 2018
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The #mActivityPeople interview series focuses on the mindful lives and health routines of mActivity’s inspiring community. Submit your own on Instagram—post your mindful mActivity (tag us @mactivitynh!) and include the hashtag #mActivityPeople for a chance to be featured on our blog.

If you have spent any time on the internet this month, you’re already well aware that May is Mental Health Month. This has been an incredibly important month at mActivity; we were founded as more than a fitness center, but a community for health that supports the pursuit of physical, social and emotional well-being.

As one last hurrah for mental health May, meet a man who lives by these values, member Chris Cutter. Chris is Clinical Assistant Professor at Yale School of Medicine for the Indigenous Wellness Resilience Initiative and Child Study Center, as well as Clinical Director of Pain Treatment Services at the APT Foundation, a Yale affiliate addiction treatment center that services the greater New Haven area. What makes his story interesting is how growing up as an ambitious athlete prepared him for success as an academic. Today, he researches the effectiveness of exercise as medicine. How's that for celebrating mental health!

Stephanie: Tell me about your career as a Psychologist — what drives you?

Chris: My interest in the field stems from growing up in poverty and surrounded by domestic violence. Coming from a Native American background, I saw my community and my family go through some really troubling times. I was lucky to be exposed to a good psychologist at a very young age. She helped me make sense of all of the injustice we faced and showed me that there was life beyond my current circumstance. I’m forever grateful for that.

It wasn’t until later that I made mental health my life’s work. I actually thought I was going to become an olympic judo player and eventually own my own judo studio. For college, I decided to go to California State University Long Beach for their judo team, not academics. It’s funny to look back and realize how far conviction can take you. I ultimately didn’t qualify for the olympic judo team, which had been my longtime goal, so I ended up studying the first thing that I found fascinating—psychology and mental health. Academia became athletic.

The game was how to get a 4.0. I thought it was so tough. Hard work. I had to be very well prepared for exams. It's similar to a judo match—if you do your homework and you put the time in, you can outperform your opponent, which in my mind was the rest of the class. That drive carried me all the way through my masters in family and marriage counseling, a psychology doctoral program, securing a clinical fellowship at Harvard Medical School’s McLean Hospital and ultimately toward becoming an effective therapist and researcher at Yale. Today, my work is centered on effective implementation of exercise in addiction treatment programs.

Photo courtesy: Christopher Cutter

Stephanie: How is exercise related to treating addiction?

Chris: I had this accidental expertise in opioid addiction for chronic pain and became passionate about addiction treatment research related to exercise. The results are inspiring — we have seen people pick up their lives, rekindle father son relationships and go back to work. Richard Schottenfeld is one of my mentors. He's a leader in the world of opioid addiction treatment. My other mentor is a pain addiction specialist, Declan Barry (mActivity member and gym partner) so I was able to be at the forefront of professional discussion about the opioid epidemic. We went to conferences where people would shun us saying it wasn’t an addiction, people just didn’t know how to use pain medicine. They were still blaming the patient not the doctor who prescribed the medicine, and we believe that is wrong.

I've always been a big fan of exercise and consistently see better mental health outcomes when physical activity is part of treatment programs. My research projects focused on physical activity as it related specifically to addiction treatment. We have done various clinical trials exploring video games like Nintendo and Wii Fit and implemented those activities into mental health programs. They work!

The American College of Sports Medicine provides four dimensions for physical exercise based on hitting activity targets that actually impact mental health and physical health. You need a balance of neuro motor activity, stretching, strength training and cardio. With all four, you can hit good mental health outcomes. For example, a brisk walk is good but it doesn’t really count as effective exercise. Yoga is the most successful exercise for pain and addiction. It is pure physical therapy for the body, using just your body and can be practiced anywhere.

Photo courtesy: Christopher Cutter

Stephanie: What is something people most often misunderstand about mental health?

Chris: Suffering. Our common human language is suffering. Whether it is physical or emotional pain, it's necessary to get help for mental health. The largest degree of suffering that leads to suicide comes from deep, deep depression. Therapy still has a stigma attached to it, but I think it is becoming more and more welcome and people are having better access to resources. We are beginning to do telemedicine projects for midwestern families — I'm doing one on a Native American reservation. They don't have the access to therapists as well out on the land, but we want to do what we can.

Stephanie: You have so many roles in the field. How do you support your own health, physically and mentally?

Chris: It took a while to learn what was really good for my own mental health. Now, exercise is my main go-to. There are many neurological benefits like better sleep and better neural connectivity with regular physical activity. That's a good base and good foundation. I found that also pacing myself and not over-doing is helpful, too. I try not to overcommit to work and spend time with friends and my children. That’s my favorite.

Photo courtesy: Christopher Cutter

Stephanie: Why did you choose mActivity?

Chris: It was such a no brainer. I was always, always fascinated by the amount of money, effort and energy that Los Angeles puts into their fitness centers. mActivity really reminds me of those places. The first time I checked it out was with one of my Native American friends, Logan Keith. We were having coffee at East rock coffee and he's like, “have you been to mActivity yet?” So we walked over and our mouths hit the floor. Like, are you kidding me? It had everything. It's gorgeous. No wait times, a large turf area which I was very interested in; my family and I still practice martial arts and equipment is necessary to actually increase your performance.

I recently got a bad concussion, so I’ve been working with Kathy for weekly massages. I’m at mActivity every single day of the week. It's a big part of my recovery.

The #mActivityPeople interview series focuses on the mindful lives and health routines of mActivity’s inspiring community. Submit your own on Instagram—post your mindful mActivity (tag us @mactivitynh!) and include the hashtag #mActivityPeople for a chance to be featured on our blog.

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