Regular exercise can be an effective way to treat some forms of depression. Physical activity alters brain chemistry and leads to feelings of well-being. Exercise can also be an effective treatment for anxiety. Some research studies indicate that regular exercise may be as effective as other treatments like medication to relieve mild to moderate depression.
Everyone feels sad from time to time, but depression is characterised by prolonged feelings of sadness, dejection and hopelessness. One in four women and one in six men will suffer from depression at some point in their lives.
Depression is a complicated illness, which can involve a number of contributing factors, such as genes, environment, diet, lifestyle, brain chemicals, psychology and personality.
Depression, health and heart attacks
On average, depressed people only exercise about half as much as people who aren’t depressed. This lack of cardiovascular fitness puts a depressed person at an increased risk of heart attack. It also seems that depression and exercise influence each other – a sedentary lifestyle increases the risk of depression, and depression increases the likelihood of a sedentary lifestyle.
One research study compared the effects of exercise and drug therapy in treating depression in older people. The 156 depressed men and women were divided into three groups. Over 16 weeks, one group took antidepressants, the second group undertook an aerobic exercise program, and the third group used both medications and exercise. Selected results include:
• The participants in all three groups improved.
• The participants taking antidepressants improved the fastest.
• 68.8 per cent of participants in the combination group were no longer classified as clinically depressed after treatment.
• 60.4 per cent of participants in the exercise group were no longer classified as clinically depressed after treatment.
• 65.5 per cent in the medication group were no longer classified as clinically depressed after treatment.
The brain chemical serotonin
Serotonin is an important brain chemical (neurotransmitter) that contributes to a range of functions, including sleep and wake cycles, libido, appetite and mood. Serotonin has been linked to depression.
Some researchers have found that regular exercise, and the increase in physical fitness that results, alters serotonin levels in the brain and leads to improved mood and feelings of wellbeing. Some research indicates that regular exercise boosts body temperature, which may ease depression by influencing the brain chemicals.
Other therapeutic benefits of exercise
Apart from changes in brain chemistry, there are other factors that may help explain the benefits of exercise:
• The person experiences a boost to their self-esteem because they take an active role in their own recovery.
• Some forms of exercise, such as team sports, are also social events.
• Physical activity burns up stress chemicals, like adrenaline, which promotes a more relaxed state of mind.
• An enjoyable bout of exercise may be distracting enough to break the vicious cycle of pessimistic thinking.