Jacob Meyer studies biological mechanisms to learn the ways exercise influences various populations and to help inform mental health treatments. Photo by Ryan Riley.

Meyer leverages exercise studies to boost mental, physical health

Jacob Meyer is on a mission to bring the benefits of exercise to more Americans — including those who, due to chronic physical or mental conditions, have unique relationships with exercise routines.

“Learning about biological mechanisms can inform mental health treatment,” said Meyer, a new assistant professor in kinesiology at Iowa State University.

Meyer said informing how practitioners treat mental health conditions requires systematic action.

“It’s more than ‘yes, you should exercise, you should be healthy’ — it’s taking apart, piece by piece, how exercise influences someone,” he said. “We can build that into the way we help people in terms of treatments, particularly as we work toward optimizing behavioral treatments, cognitive therapy, and other treatments that we use in mental health conditions.”

A different approach

Meyer’s research in mental health traces back to his time in graduate school. At the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Meyer’s primary adviser performed chronic fatigue syndrome research. For Meyer, the question became how to bring exercise’s benefits to the people who could use it the most.

“My research now includes more than looking at exercise because people will be healthier,” Meyer said. “When things aren’t working as they should, why is that? It’s a different approach than I was used to — which made it interesting.”

Meyer has grown this work to focus on how to harness the power of exercise for improving mood and well-being in people with clinical depression. He continues to use an understanding of the biology of exercise’s mental health effects to enhance its impact in the lives of people who stand the most to gain.

Meyer said exercise training is a behavioral approach that can be used clinically to treat depression. However, it is not often prescribed, as patients can struggle with anhedonia (no longer enjoying previously enjoyed activities) and lack motivation.

Understanding these barriers, Meyer designed a study to measure how different intensities of a single session of exercise influence the way a depressed patient feels. He found exercise of even a light intensity was as effective at improving mood as moderate or hard exercise.

Additionally, the published study showed biological markers involved in depression, like brain-derived neurotrophic factor, improved.

“These findings have real-world application as they point to the potential for using relatively short, low-intensity exercise bouts — like walking around the neighborhood or biking to get groceries — as a tool for symptom management in depression,” Meyer said.

Collaborative research

As Meyer joins the Iowa State community, he’s eager to collaborate with new land-grant colleagues to better understand the human experience — and focus on quickly translatable research for clinical practice. He said opportunities to explore exercise physiology, exercise immunology, and exercise psychology are readily available. From a nutrition standpoint, he’d like to partner with food scientists to study how energy intake relates to energy expenditure during exercise and the way people feel.

“We’re all complex beings; we have lots of things going on. Exercise is one of those behaviors that influences people in a wide variety of ways,” Meyer said. “Iowa State is an excellent place for me to bring my background in exercise and mental health. It’s a university where I can pull together a team of strong researchers across the board.”

Philip Martin, professor and chair of kinesiology, said Meyer will add a unique outlook to the department.

“Jacob’s expertise and research interests fit quite well in the kinesiology department and provide new perspectives on how physical activity affects mental health,” he said. “He also values an interdisciplinary perspective and has excellent potential for building collaborative relationships both within and outside the department.”

From the lab to the classroom and beyond

Meyer will bring his expertise to the classroom as he co-teaches Exercise and Health: Behavior Change, a course designed to help students analyze theoretical health behavior models and their application to physical activity behavior, including those within special populations. In the spring, his classes will focus on physical activity epidemiology, looking at how physical activity relates to overall health in the general population.

Meyer said he also plans to develop courses on exercise in the treatment of mental health conditions, and potentially, the neurobiology of exercise — the biological mechanisms that relate exercise to mental health. For Meyer, helping students see the connections between theory and real-world application lies at the heart of good teaching.

“Teaching is about building relationships between students, and also between students and the material,” he said. “The most interesting part for me is seeing students engage in what’s being taught, then taking it beyond what we’re talking about in class or online studies and thinking about how to translate it to real life.”

Iowa State’s land-grant mission, Meyer said, also helps bring that knowledge to communities for a bigger benefit.

“Part of what makes Iowa State so interesting to me is that it’s a land-grant university very focused on not just learning, but taking that information back to the people of Iowa, the U.S., and beyond,” he said. “The question for me becomes how I help students to best engage with the material and make that engagement last, to overflow into their personal and professional lives.”