According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), approximately 18.8 percent of adults in the United States suffer from some type of depressive disorder (this figure includes mental illnesses that have depression as a major component, such as bipolar disorder). Perhaps not surprisingly then, anti-depressants are the most widely prescribed medications in the United States, according to the US Centers for Disease Control.
But most anti-depressants have uncomfortable, and sometimes disturbing, side effects, which can include sexual dysfunction, weight gain, insomnia, and emotional numbing. Worse still is that some studies indicate that only 35 to 45 percent of anti-depressants remove all depressive symptoms from those who take the medication (Source: The New York Times).
But studies have also found a link between exercise and depression relief. Indeed, exercise has been shown to alleviate many of the symptoms of mild to moderate depression.
Symptom of Depression
According to the Mayo Clinic, some of the symptoms of depression include:
- Persistent feelings of sadness
- Unremitting fatigue
- Loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities
- Uncontrollable crying spells
- Suicidal thoughts or behaviors
- Feelings of hopelessness
- Lack of concentration
Causes of Depression
Moreover, the exact causes of depression are not known. Again according to the Mayo Clinic, the causes of depression are thought to be linked to one, or all, of these factors:
Biochemical. Many studies have shown biochemical changes in the brains of those who suffer from depression. Indeed, most of the anti-depressants are designed to correct these biochemical brain anomalies
Genetics. Statistics show that a family history of depression can make one more vulnerable to developing a depressive disorder.
Environment. Life changes and stressors in the environment (such as the loss of a loved one, job termination, and financial problems) are known contributing factors to depression.
Exercise and Depression
But regardless of the causes of this disease, recent studies on exercise and depression have shown that exercise can be an effective anti-depressant for at least some of the symptoms of this disease.
One such study at Nottingham Trent University tested the effects of exercise on a mood-enhancing brain chemical-phenylethylamine. (In the brain, an enzyme turns phenylethylamine into the acid phenyl acetic, and both have been shown to be deficient in the brains of those who suffer from depression).
For this study, the researchers selected 20 healthy men. The average ages of these subjects were 22, and all were regular exercisers, performing about 4 hours of exercises per week. Prior to this study, the subjects did not exercise for one day so that researchers could test their urine for levels of phenyl acetic acid. (Urine testing is the most accurate way to measure this acid).
The following day, the subjects exercised on a treadmill for 30 minutes. During this workout, they exercised at 70 percent of their maximum heart rate capacities because previous studies had indicated that this level of intensity facilitated mood changes. After this treadmill exercise, the subjects were asked to rate the level of difficulty of their workouts.
Researchers then retested the subject's urine and made a startling discovery-18 of the subjects showed an increase in phenyl acetic acid, and this increase was not a small one. According to the BBC, "[t]hough the average increase in levels was 77%, the increase in individuals ranged from 14 to 572%." (The higher levels tended to be present in those who rated their workout to be difficult on a 'perceived exertion scale').
The results of this study, and others, indicate that exercise and depression may be positively linked and that, perhaps, exercise should be a manadatory prescription as part of a depression treatment program.
Exercise Your Depression Away?
Although experts stress that exercise should never be a replacement for medical treatment as advised by your physician, there has also never been a study that shows that exercise worsens depression. Also, unlike anti-depressant medications, there are also no known side effects to exercise. But how does one get started when one of the more common symptoms of depression is lethargy and fatigue?
While studies have shown that 30 minutes of exercise several days per week can lift depression, there is evidence that as little as 10 to 15 minutes of exercise at a time can improve mood.
How to Get Started
Beginning and maintaining an exercise program is difficult for even those who do not suffer from depression. How, then, can a depressed person begin an exercise routine? The Mayo Clinic offers these tips for starting such a program. Try them and see, for yourself, the positive link between exercise and depression.
Talk to Your Physician or Mental Health Provider
Before beginning an exercise program, be sure to talk to your physician and/or your mental health provider. Aside from ensuring that you are sufficiently physically healthy to commence an exercise regimen, he or she may be able to make suggestions for effective exercises and routines for your particular level of depression.
Change your Attitude
Most people approach exercise with dread and see it as a necessary evil. Such an attitude almost guarantees that it will not be incorporated as a standard lifestyle practice. Instead, change your attitude. Think of exercise as another therapeutic tool to help to alleviate your depression naturally.
Make your Goals Reasonable
Many people fail at their exercise programs because they establish unreasonable goals. It is not reasonable, for instance, to try to walk 3 miles on your first workout session when you have not been physically active for the past few months (or years). Instead, start out slowly. Build up to that 3, or 4, or 5 miles. Build up to 10, to 20, to 30 minutes. Build up to that feeling of achievement.
Feeling Good About Exercising
Even though the thought of exercising may not excite you, there are undoubtedly some physical fitness activities that you actually enjoy. Maybe you hate to go for a walk, but enjoy outdoor cycling. Similarly, some individuals prefer morning workouts, while others prefer evening workouts, and still other individuals prefer workouts to be more spontaneous and avoid routines. Do not endeavor to fight your body clock; rather to maximize your chances of starting (and maintaining) an exercise routine, choose the time of day that is most comfortable for you.
Much research has shown that choosing to exercise can be a choice between depression and happiness. Encouraged by these exercise and depression studies, many people are now adding exercise to their treatment options and are finding real relief from this debilitating condition.