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Exercise - the best antidepressant
17-Apr-2019Exercise – love it or hate it, there’s no denying it’s good for you. And it’s not just good for your body – it’s wonderful for your mind and mental health as well. In fact, it’s been said that exercise is the best – and most under-utilised – antidepressant around. Here’s why this is true – and why you should make exercise a non-negotiable in your life.
Backed by science
Depression is an increasingly common disorder that decreases quality of life, motivation and energy levels, and has an increased risk for a variety of complementary medical conditions such as heart disease. It is typically treated with some combination of medication and psychotherapy, but these treatments are not effective for all people. Studies carried out over the last few years have continuously shown that in some cases, regular exercise can be as effective as taking antidepressant medication. Exercise has been proven to be helpful in reducing symptoms of mild to moderate depression, because it causes the same structural changes to the brain as antidepressants do. The hiccocampus is a part of the brain that’s usually shrunken in people suffering from depression, and exercise has been shown to be effective in creating growth in this part of the brain and new neural pathways.
Both aerobic exercise and resistance exercise or strength training have been found to be useful in treating symptoms of depression.
How does it work?
Exercise can alleviate symptoms of depression in a number of ways, including:
• Increasing levels of energy
• Improving sleep
• Improving mood by increasing the levels of endorphins in the brain
• Improving brain function, which will make you feel better
• Distracting people from their problems and giving them something else to focus on
• Providing social support when done with other people, and giving you the chance to meet and socialise with others
• Increasing self-esteem and confidence – through feeling better about your appearance as well as meeting exercise goals and challenges
• Increasing a sense of control by enabling people to take an active role in their wellbeing
• Allowing you to cope in a healthy way, rather than turning to drugs or alcohol, which will only lead to worsening symptoms
How much exercise is enough to counteract depression?
Start by following the recommended guidelines for your age group. For most adults, that’s 150 to 300 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity each week; or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous physical activity each week (see the National Exercise Guidelines here). A good goal to aim for is 30 minutes of physical activity on most days of the week. If you can manage more, all the better.
Those suffering from depression may find it hard to get motivated to incorporate exercise into their lives. Depression can cause reduced energy and appetite, disturbed sleep, and body aches and pains, leading to lower levels of motivation. It’s can be challenging to break this cycle, but once you find the motivation to do something, you’ll find that exercise can make a big difference to your mental and physical health.
You don’t have to go to a gym to start exercising if you don’t feel you can, however. As a starting point, try and incorporate exercise and physical activity into your life in as many ways as possible so that it becomes part of your daily routine. Try:
• Parking further away from your destination
• Taking the stairs rather than the lift
• Walking to talk to colleagues rather than calling or emailing them
• Going for a walk at lunch, rather than staying in the office lunchroom
• Riding or walking to work
• Standing up during phone calls
• Getting up and moving every hour
• Doing some vigorous housework or gardening
• Washing your car rather than using the car wash
• Playing active games with your kids rather than spending time in front of screens
• Catching up with friends over a walk rather than a coffee
• Walking to the corner shop to buy milk or bread
Any amount of exercise is better than no exercise, so don’t be worried if you can’t fit in the optimal amount of exercise yet. You can start small and build up as your levels of energy and motivation increase. Even modest levels of exercise have been shown to improve depressive symptoms. For more tips on how to fit 30 minutes of daily exercise into your everyday life, click here.
Check with your doctor
If you’re new to exercise, check with your doctor before starting any new exercise program, to make sure it’s safe. Your doctor will take into consideration any existing health conditions as well as your level of depression, and any medications you are taking. Your doctor or health professional should also be able to advise you how much exercise to start with and at what levels of intensity.
The earlier in life you can start making exercise part of your lifestyle, the greater your chances of warding off depression. So start today – this time next year you’ll be either glad you did, or wishing you had.
Many studies have shown that once depressed people start exercising, they rate it as the best and most effective treatment in managing their depression. Studies have also shown that active people are less likely to be depressed than sedentary people. So don’t think of physical activity as a chore, think of it as therapy, and a very effective tool you can use to get better. It’s a long-term strategy, but it’s a good one.