Monday, July 1, 2013

Exercise and Depression

This happens to be a topic that I am very passionate about. Aerobic exercise has been proven to be a powerful weapon against depression, more powerful than most appreciate.

There is no blood test for depression, there are many kinds, and according to the World Health Organization, depression is the leading cause of disability in the United States and Canada! And now with the recession and more people out of work, there is no doubt that these #'s will continue to increase.

But there is hope! Whether you are clinically depressed, or just bummed about losing your job, there is a lot of cutting edge research that indicates you can self-create your own happiness by using exercise.

There is a clear and inverse relationship between exercise and depression, as noted by several studies including one published in 2003 by Columbia University, which surveyed over 8,000 people. (People who exercise the most are the least likely to be depressed.) But that's not all!

The issues with using drugs like Lexapro, Effexor, Etc is that the body and brain are a complex symphony of chemicals/hormones and whenever you target one chemical deficiency with an external drug, you end up messing up the balance between that chemical and the other chemicals in the brain and body.

To put it clearly, aerobic exercise, single handedly targets ALL of the neurotransmitters targeted by the entire class of anti-depressants. It better conducts the symphony of chemicals that keeps us happy, instead of adding more clarinets and throwing off the entire sound (as anti-depressants do.) This is incredibly important to understand, as many doctors and psychiatrists over prescribe anti-depressants, which as indicated by the research, do not work as effectively as aerobic exercise.

In addition, there are the endorphins from exercise, which create positive feelings and emotions (the exact opposite of depression.) As stated on Web MD:

These endorphins interact with the receptors in your brain which are our body's natural pain-killers and can provide relief from some of the aches & pains which accompany depression. They also act as sedatives. They are manufactured in your brain, spinal cord, and many other parts of your body and are released in response to brain chemicals called neurotransmitters. Endorphins also trigger a positive feeling in the body. For example, the feeling that follows a run or workout is often described as "euphoric." That feeling, known as a "runner's high," can be accompanied by a positive and energizing outlook on life.

Exercise has many psychological and emotional benefits when you have depression or anxiety. As stated on the Mayo Clinic Website, these include:

* Confidence - Being physically active gives you a sense of accomplishment. Meeting goals or challenges, no matter how small, can boost self-confidence at times when you need it most. Exercise can also make you feel better about your appearance and your self-worth.

* Distraction - When you have depression or anxiety, it's easy to dwell on how badly you feel. But dwelling interferes with your ability to problem solve and cope in a healthy way. Dwelling can also make depression more severe and longer lasting. Exercise can shift the focus away from unpleasant thoughts to something more pleasant, such as your surroundings or the music you enjoy listening to while you exercise.

* Interactions - Depression and anxiety can lead to isolation. That, in turn, can worsen your condition. Exercise may give you the chance to meet or socialize with others, even if it's just exchanging a friendly smile or greeting as you walk around your neighborhood.

* Healthy coping - Doing something positive to manage depression or anxiety is a healthy coping strategy. Trying to feel better by drinking alcohol excessively, dwelling on how badly you feel, or hoping depression and anxiety will go away on their own aren't helpful coping strategies.

All of the benefits described above are excellent, and will help people recover from depression. But the most important aspect of cardiovascular exercise that you must keep in mind, is that it not only optimize all the "happy" chemicals produce in your brain and body, it also helps create new neurons! These neurons are created in the areas of the brain that deal with memory, learning, attention, and survival, and once created, can be utilized by the brain to create newer and happier behavior, habits, skills, and abilities.

In light of this information, it is not surprising that a study by James Blumenthal concluded exercise was as effective as medication (and I wouldn't be surprised if they eventually find out that it is MORE effective in most cases.)

Often, patients who use anti-depressants experience immediate relief, but do not FEEL happy, while exercise, as determined by Blumenthal, works better over the long term than medication. There was some evidence that the group that took exercise and the medication did not improve as much as the group that just exercised because the idea of taking medication took away some of the pride and accomplishment that the exercise only group achieved. (Perhaps the exercise only group experienced more self-efficacy.)

This alone is a very important thing to understand; when you give the power of happiness to a pill, you take away your own power to cultivate happiness. (Please understand that I am not completely against pills, and think that anti-depressants can be an important part of recovery for depression, as determined by a licensed psychiatrist.) My only issue is that we are so fast to look for solutions outside of the body and mind in this culture, and when we do that, we find solutions that are incomplete, short term and ultimately a waste of time.

According to Web MD, here are some questions you should consider before you begin an exercise program to address depression:

* What physical activities do I enjoy?

* Do I prefer group or individual activities?

* What programs best fit my schedule?

* Do I have physical conditions that limit my choice of exercise?

* What goals do I have in mind? (For example: weight loss, strengthening muscles, improving flexibility, or mood enhancement)

I would also add that you should strongly consider engaging in recreation activities, hobbies, books, or crafts that you truly enjoy after exercise because you will utilize the new neurons in your brain to further develop you skills in that activity. (Shortly after the new neurons are formed in the brain, they need to be utilized so they can be integrated and connected into the network of existing neurons, or else the new neurons are re-absorbed and are not permanent). In this way, you can use exercise to both optimize you "mood chemicals" and cultivate an activity that provides you with happiness at the same time.

Exercise Prescription for Depression:

The research indicates that burning around 1.400 calories from higher intensity cardio is very effective in preventing and treating depression. (This works out to about 3 hours of moderate intensity cardio per week for a 150lb person.) However, it is important to start slow, and gradually build up the volume (total time) of your workouts first. Once you are up to 30-45 minutes of cardio, you can begin to increase the intensity slowly, although it only takes working at a perceived exertion of about 7/10 to have the required intensity to treat depression.

Also, be sure to set yourself up for success by engaging in exercise in an environment you feel comfortable in, focusing on small goals, and sticking with the program day by day for at least 3 weeks before making any judgments. It can be tough to get started and feel the benefits right away, but our bodies and minds are built to be happiest when they are moving and healthy.

Until next time, keep your body-mind fit.


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