We know the numerous diseases that are wreaking havoc on modern society. Heart disease, obesity, cancer and many other have caused extensive physical harm and changed the landscape of the healthcare industry forever.
However there is one disease that, while far less fancy or recognizable, is plaguing American society in force- and that disease is depression.
It’s estimated that depression affects nearly 9.5% of the adult population each year 1https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC474733/. To add to that, it’s believed that 17% of the population will suffer from a major depressive episode at least once in their lifetime. As a result depression has been identified as the leading cause of disability in the US, costing the work force 40 billion dollars annually in lost work productivity and medical expenses to combat this elusive illness.
As a result, it’s speculated that depression in primary care has sky-rocketed, with cases of minor depression and dysthymia ranging anywhere from 5% to 16% of patients. Usually depressed patients treated in primary care settings receive predominantly pharmacologic therapy, with fewer receiving adjunct cognitive or behavioral interventions.
Many who suffer from this disease aren’t aware one of the greatest resources for treating and even curing depression- physical activity. In this article we’ll discuss the deep ties between fitness and mental health and dive into how it exercise can be implemented for improving symptoms.
How Does Fitness Improve Mental Health?
Consistent physical activity can help relieve the symptoms of depression in several ways:
Releasing feel-good endorphins
The brain releases natural cannabis-like chemicals (endogenous cannabinoids) and several other chemicals produced by the body that boost the individual’s sense of well-being, creating a “euphoric” state.
Get more social interaction
Exercise and physical activity is one of the best way to foster community and socialize with others. Training at a gym or with a local fitness group has the potential to become a powerful social circle that can provide emotional support and uplift a person’s mood.
Cope in a healthy way
Using exercise to improve your physical and mental health is a positive coping strategy for dealing with depression or anxiety. Other negative coping mechanisms such as alcohol, drugs, or even dwelling on feelings are unproductive approaches that can lead to worse symptoms.
Possible Reasons For Its Effectiveness
While the effects exercise has on depression seems pretty straight forward on the surface, a lot of the details leading to its benefits on anxiety and mental health are still unclear. There are several theories that can explain the results both physiologically and psychologically- all of which are worth noting.
Researchers are suggesting that as the body temperature rises as a result of exercise, the symptoms of depression and anxiety are mitigated. It’s theorized that there are rises in temperature in specific regions of the brain, specifically the spinal cord, that trigger feelings of relaxation and reduced muscle tension. The catch 22 is that while thermogenics has been analyzed for its effects on anxiety, it has not been tested specifically for depression.
There are several physiological theories proposed by the health community, but there may be psychological reasons behind exercise’s benefits. Some have theorized that exercises offers a distraction from depressive thoughts and daily worries. As a whole, distracting activities for coping with depressive thoughts has actually had a positive effect on depression as a whole. It’s been done with journaling, and other introspective activities.
Self-efficacy is the belief that one possesses the skills for accomplishing a goal as well as the confidence that the task can actually be completed. It’s easy to imagine how such a positive attribute could affect any person’s mood, and researchers speculate it has a powerful effect on depression.
Exercise And Depression
Associations between exercise and depression have been linked as far back as the 1900’s, and for good reason. Even in the early decades of research, it was pretty apparent that moderate exercise was beneficial for depression and resulted in a happier mood.
For all of the numerous studies that have looked at the connection between physical activity and depression, the vast majority have validated the positive effects of exercise involvement.
To bring this point home, 30 community-dwelling moderately depressed men and women were randomly assigned to an exercise intervention group, a social support group, or a wait-list control group. The exercise intervention required walking 20 to 40 minutes 3 times per week for 6 weeks. Not surprisingly the exercise program successfully relieved overall symptoms of depression and to boot was more effective than the other 2 groups in reducing somatic symptoms of depression 2https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC474733/.
While it’s great that exercise helps alleviate symptoms of depression, it’s important to clarity which forms of fitness are the most effective. As it stands, aerobic training has the most data to back its influence on mental health.
For example, a study had participants exercise on a stationary bike 4 times per week, 30 minutes per session, for 6 weeks. This regimen was paired with an attention-placebo control group where subjects listened to audiotapes of “white noise” that they were told was subliminal assertiveness training.
The results suggest that the aerobic training program led to a clear reduction in depression compared with the control group. On top of that, the improvements in depression were maintained 3 months post intervention! In another study, just 30 minutes of treadmill walking for 10 days straight was enough to produce clinically and statistically significant decreases in depression.
How Much Is Enough?
The great news for those dealing with depression is that relieving the symptoms of this disease doesn’t require much exercise. Performing 30 minutes of moderate cardio three to five days a week is sufficient for relieving the symptoms of depression 3https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC474733/. Even 10-15 minutes a day has the potential to reduce signs of anxiety as well. Keep in mind cardio doesn’t just encompass running- there are plenty of options to explore that can make your fitness experience enjoyable. This can include:
- Yard work
- Chores around the house
The list goes on and on, and these activities don’t have to be done alone. If you enjoy the company of others there are plenty of opportunities to link up for large or small group gatherings. This can serve as a chance to improve the symptoms of depression through both fitness and social interaction.
How To Get Started
Figure out what you like doing
The first step to getting results with fitness is discovering what you find most enjoyable and sticking with it. Progress with physical fitness takes consistency, (and if we’re being honest) the only thing that’s really going to stick is something you enjoy doing on the regular basis. For example, can you see yourself gardening in the afternoon, beginning your day with a morning jog, going on a scenic bike ride or playing a pick-up game of basketball? Whatever it is you enjoy, do it and do it regularly.
Get your mental health professional’s support
Talk to your doctor or mental health professional for guidance and support. Don’t be afraid to ask for advice for a fitness routine and how it fits into the big picture of your physical and mental health.
Set reasonable goals
We can all agree that depression isn’t something cured overnight, and the same reasoning can be applied to fitness. The end goal may seem distant and unattainable, however the trick for both depression and fitness is to set smaller, realistic goals along the way. Every smaller goal along the way serves as a benchmark to highlight progress. As you continuously recognize the little wins leading to your destination, your body will begin to improve as well as your mentality/ depression.
Structure your schedule for success
Once you have an idea of the type of exercise you like and the goal(s) you want to achieve, your schedule is the next hurdle to tackle. Whether you’re training for a few minutes or a few hours, results require consistency i.e. a set routine. Look at your schedule and set aside enough time each week to make your short term goals a reality.
Be patient with the process
It may take longer than you hope to realize the full extent of your mental and physical goals, but trust that when you bring intention, intensity, and consistency to each workout you certainly will see results.
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