Exercise Good Medicine for Depression

August 3, 2012
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By Mark William Lisky

At some point in life, we all feel blue, sad or depressed. Fortunately for most, these feelings of depression are short-lived and pass within days. In many cases, depression is a normal reaction to life’s issues, a symptom of some medical condition or a side effect of certain medical treatments.

Some schools of thought even suggest that short bouts of depression may be part of human evolution, necessary during the leaner times to decrease metabolism. However, when people are depressed to the point that it begins to interfere with their daily lives, it can be a serious mental and physical illness.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th Edition, “The diagnosis of major depression can be made if a person has five or more of the following symptoms during the same two-week interval with at least one of the symptoms being either depressed mood or loss of interest or pleasure in activities that were previously pleasurable: depressed mood, fatigue, sadness, lost interest in activities that once were pleasurable, feelings of worthlessness or inappropriate guilt, disturbed sleep, helplessness, poor concentration, significant weight gain or loss and recurrent thoughts of death.”

What may be welcome news for those who are depressed is that health professionals advocate exercise as an integrated and complementary part of a treatment program. The compelling aspect of exercise in this case, is that exercise has no social stigma, no adverse side effects and is relatively inexpensive. There is a substantial body of evidence to show a strong link between physical activity and its ability to reduce symptoms of clinically defined depression. Comparative studies have demonstrated that exercise can be as effective as medication or psychotherapy.

In Britain, both the chief medical officer and the National Institute for Clinical Excellence have acknowledged such evidence in their professional publications. Moreover, the 2004 government white paper Choosing Health states, “Regular physical activity reduces the risk of depression and has positive benefits for mental health, including reduced anxiety, enhanced mood and self-esteem.”

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The direct links between depression and exercise are not entirely clear, but being physically active works. Exercise may also aid in keeping depression from recurring. One study found that short workouts – as little as 15 minutes – can temporarily but dramatically reduce symptoms. In addition, a comprehensive review on fitness and its relationship to depression showed that physical activity significantly decreased depression in all age groups.

Studies too have shown that participation in one single session of lifting weights is sufficient to produce positive changes in self-esteem. Researchers also believe that exercise can be a form of meditation. This can directly affect the autonomic nervous system improving a person’s emotional state almost immediately.

According to experts at the Mayo Clinic, exercise probably helps ease depression in a number of other ways including:

• Releases feel-good brain chemicals (neurotransmitters and endorphins). These may ease depression.

• Reduces immune system chemicals. These can worsen depression.

• Increases body temperature. This may have calming effects.

• Takes your mind off worries. Exercise is a distraction that can get you away from the cycle of negative thoughts that feed anxiety and depression.

• Offers more social interaction. Exercise may give you the chance to meet or socialize with others. Just exchanging a friendly smile or greeting as you walk around your neighborhood can help your mood.

• Helps you cope in a healthy way. Doing something positive to manage depression is a healthy coping strategy.

It is a matter of fact that a vast majority of people find physical fitness uncomfortable and a disagreeable chore. To persuade someone who is depressed (clinically or not), while at the same time not accustomed to exercising, to start a program can be challenging. If you are one of these people who finds the thought of exercising unpleasant, realize that exercise does not mean hours of sweating in a gym, being screamed at by an overzealous instructor or jogging miles until you drop. Forget all that nonsense.

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An exercise program to help ease the symptoms of depression can start with a 10-minute walk once a day. As you start, look at those 10 minutes as a daily dose of medication, just like taking an aspirin. Over the weeks, you can slowly increase your dosage of exercise until you reach 30-minute walks.

To make a new walking program a habit, it’s important to walk at the same time and place each day. That adds an element of structure to a program. It’s also essential to pick a place to walk that you have to get to, whether it’s 5 minutes away or 20. This adds a simple attainable goal. Completing attainable goals is very important for increasing self-esteem.

As you start feeling better, think about adding a new “medication” to your walking program like some basic calisthenics exercises. Begin with various arm circles, followed by toe raises, trunk twists, knee raises and one-quarter knee bends. Perform these movements at the end of your walk. Eventually, as your mood improves and your depression lessens, you may want to consider joining a gym for some supervised, safe and structured strength training.

If you are using exercise as complementary medicine for untreated depression and your symptoms still interfere with daily life, you may need to see a professional for help. If you are currently under the care of a physician for depression, you should mention to him or her that you have decided to get more physically active. Your doctor’s opinion, positive feedback and encouragement, will undoubtedly, prove extremely helpful in keeping you motivated as you make exercise a “pleasant” part of your life.

Mark William Lisky is a personal exercise and nutrition advisor. He can be reached by calling 732-933-9070 or emailing mlisky@liskyfitness.com.

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