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Exercise for mental health

Good for the body; good for the mind

Karen Miller
Exercise for mental health

It’s well known that exercise can stave off or reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes and some cancers. You can add depression to that list. Exercise engorges the brain with blood, which provides nutrients and oxygen for energy. It also stimulates the release of chemicals.

The “runner’s high” is attributed to endorphins that reduce stimulus to pain and may produce a feeling of euphoria. In addition, aerobic exercise can increase the production and release of serotonin, a naturally-occurring chemical that impacts mood. An imbalance of serotonin may be a contributing factor to depression.

Physical Activity Guidelines for Adults

  • 150 minutes* per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity, e.g. brisk walking OR
  • 75 minutes* per week of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity, e.g. jogging or running OR
  • A combination of both. As a rule of thumb, one minute of vigorous activity equals two minutes of moderate activity.
  • Muscle-strengthening activities two or more times a week.

Aerobic exercise can be broken into 10-minute intervals.

Researchers at Duke University compared the impact of exercise to medications on depression. A small group of adult volunteers with major depression were randomly assigned to one of three groups: aerobic exercise, antidepressants or a combination of both.

After four months, patients in all three groups showed similar improvements in mood. Roughly two-thirds of all participants could no longer be classified as having major depression. A 10-month follow-up to the study, however, found that the effect of exercise lasted longer than that of the antidepressants. Participants who continued to exercise regularly were less likely to relapse into depression.

The results of the study suggest that exercise serves as a complement to treatment for depression, and in some cases, may be the only treatment necessary.

Another study published recently in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise suggests that exercise can actually prevent depression. A group of roughly 3,000 women between the ages of 42 and 52 were followed for 10 years to evaluate the relation between physical activity and symptoms of major depression across time. The goal was to examine whether being physically active diminishes the risk of depression in midlife women.

The researchers found that women who exercised at least 30 minutes a day for five days a week showed fewer signs of depression in comparison to the women who did not exercise. This finding is significant given the fact that the prevalence of depression is highest in women in the age group 40 to 59, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

These results indicate that regular moderate-intensity exercise, such as walking or jogging, may be protective against depression.

Exercise can also reduce stress and anxiety, sharpen the memory and prevent cognitive decline.

Some counselors — literally “walk the talk” — and combine “walk therapy” and “talk therapy.” That is, they provide psychotherapy while strolling with their patients. This is especially effective if hiking paths, parks or forests are available. For some, busy city streets work as well.

This style of therapy has several benefits. Not only does it cause a person to be more physically active, thus improving mood, it provides a more relaxed environment that encourages people to open up more. For some it is easier to walk and talk when side-by-side instead of the traditional seated, face-to-face interaction.

If exercise is so good for you, then why hasn’t everyone jumped on the band wagon? The CDC noted that less than 50 percent of the adult population in this country gets the recommended physical activity.

Therapists are experts in behavioral change and some now see their role is to help people become motivated to exercise. Michael Otto, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Boston University, put it well in an interview published by the American Psychological Association.

“Many people skip the workout at the very time it has the greatest payoff. That prevents you from noticing just how much better you feel when you exercise,” he said. “Failing to exercise when you feel bad is like explicitly not taking an aspirin when your head hurts. That’s the time you get the payoff.”

Think of exercise as medicine. It has no side effects and it’s free.