“If exercise could be put in a pill it would be the number one anti-aging medicine and the number one anti-depression medicine.”
– Dr. Robert N. Butler
According to the World Health Organization, depression is the leading cause of disability in the United States and Canada, ahead of heart disease and cancer. Common wisdom tells us that exercise boosts mood and overall health. If you exercise regularly you know first hand the benefits that can come from being physically active.
But just how effective is exercise in warding off psychological maladies like depression?
Let us explore some science behind the relationship between exercise and it’s effect on depression:
Studies dating back to 1981 have concluded that exercise can improve mood in people suffering from mild, moderate, and even severe depression. One study in particular, performed by James A. Blumenthal, tested 3 groups of depressed people. The first group participated in an aerobic exercise program, another was put onto an antidepressant drug, and the third group did both. After the study period of 16 weeks, 60-70% of all subjects studied were free from major depression. This study shows that exercise is an effective substitute for antidepressants, and unlike its chemical alternative, comes only with positive side effects.
A follow-up to the above mentioned study showed that the effects of exercise lasted far longer than those of the antidepressants. Six months after the study was completed, researchers found that patients who continued engaging in exercise regularly were less likely to suffer from relapses of depression.
“The main conclusion is that maintaining an exercise program can significantly help in reducing depression,” says the study’s lead researcher, Duke psychologist James Blumenthal, whose work is published in the current issue of the journal Psychosomatic Medicine. He believes this is the first study that actually looks at exercise as a treatment for depression for any age group, but says the results, “just confirm what a lot of people think exercise can do anyway.”
“Every 50 minutes of weekly exercise correlates to a 50% drop in the odds of being depressed.”
– Dr. John J Ratey, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science Behind Exercise and the Brain
How Does Exercise Treat Depression?
Through the stress caused by exercise, it is believed that the brain is conditioned to be less susceptible to stress in the face of unexpected stimuli and events. In other words, the challenge and strain that envelops the brain during exercise may help us to keep our lives in perspective.
Researchers wonder whether this interaction between body and brain may be evolutionarily hardwired into humans. “It occurs to us that exercise is the more normal or natural condition and that being sedentary is really the abnormal situation,” said neuroscience professor Philip Holmes.
As Dr. James S. Gordon, a world-renowned expert in using mind-body medicine to heal depression, said:
“What we’re finding in the research on physical exercise is that exercise is at least as good as antidepressants for helping people who are depressed… physical exercise changes the level of serotonin in your brain. And it increases your endorphin levels, your “feel good hormones.”
And also—and these are amazing studies—exercise can increase the number of cells in your brain, in the region of the brain called the hippocampus. These studies were first done on animals, and they’re very important because sometimes in depression, there are fewer of those cells in the hippocampus.
But you can actually change your brain with exercise. So it’s got to be part of everybody’s treatment, everybody’s plan.”
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