This article was submitted by Eve Pearce.
There have been many studies conducted into the effects of exercise on people suffering from depression and other mental health conditions. The majority of these studies have concluded that exercise generally has a beneficial effect and can alleviate some of the symptoms of depression.
Exercise can be as effective as medication
One such study was conducted by researchers at Duke University in North Carolina. The study focused on depression in 156 elderly patients, and found that 30 minutes of moderate exercise, such as a jog or brisk walk, three times a week worked just as well in relieving the symptoms of major depression as treatment with anti-depressant drugs.
While we don’t know why exercise confers such a benefit, this study shows that exercise should be considered as a credible form of treatment for these patients,” commented lead researcher, Duke psychologist James Blumenthal in an interview. “Almost one-third of depressed patients in general do not respond to medications, and for others, the medications can cause unwanted side effects. Exercise should be considered a viable option.
Although the research was based on patients in middle-aged and elderly age groups, researchers believe that a similar study with younger patients would result in similar findings.
As well as improving mental health and well being, exercise has also been used successfully to help control addiction to medication, drugs or alcohol, and can be beneficial as part of a regime to assist recovering addicts manage their withdrawal from these substances. Some researchers suggest that this may be because regular exercise can provide structure and purpose to an addicts’ routine to replace the void left by no longer taking the addictive substance. Exercise also helps to regulate the body clock, and allows recovering addicts to recover natural sleep rhythms which can be disrupted during addiction. Another theory put forward by experts is that exercise stimulates the release of dopamine in the body, triggering feelings of pleasure and allowing the addict to feel a natural, safer ‘high’ in place of the artificial high previously experienced through use of the addictive substance.
Exercise can also prevent depression returning
Duke University researchers didn’t give a definitive reason why exercise proved to be so effective in treating the symptoms of depression, but Blumenthal suggested that it might be because exercise involves patients actively taking steps to improve their health, rather than just passively taking medication.
“Patients who exercised may have felt a greater sense of mastery over their condition and gained a greater sense of accomplishment. They felt more self-confident and had better self-esteem because they were able to do it themselves, and attributed their improvement to their ability to exercise,” he explained.
A six month follow-up study by Blumenthal found that not only can exercise relieve the symptoms of depression, continued exercise can help prevent the symptoms returning.
“The important conclusion is that the effectiveness of exercise seems to persist over time, and that patients who respond well to exercise and maintain their exercise have a much smaller risk of relapsing,” he stated.
Why is exercise so effective?
Many other reasons have been put forward to explain why exercise can improve mental health. These include:
Feel good chemicals – exercise is known to stimulate the release of feel good chemicals in the body, such as endorphins, adrenaline, serotonin, and dopamine. These chemicals work to lift your mood and generally make you feel more positive.
Boosting self-confidence – a benefit of exercise is that it increases physical fitness and usually aids weight-loss. People who take regular exercise generally feel more attractive, which leads to higher self-esteem and self-confidence.
Improved brain function – A study by researchers at King’s College London found that people who have undertaken regular, intensive exercise during their lifetime show better brain function at the age of 50 than those who have not exercised regularly. The study also suggests that even smaller amounts of exercise can be sufficient to improve brain functionality.
Diet and depression
Many studies have also found a link between diet and mental health. The Science Daily reported on a recent study into the effect of eating fast food, such as burgers and hot-dogs, and commercial baked goods. The study found that people eating fast food had a 51% greater risk of developing depression that people who rarely or never ate this food. Similar results were found for consumers of the baked goods.
A further study by University College London suggested a link between depression and eating too much processed food. On a more positive note, the same study found that a diet rich in whole foods, such as fresh fruit, vegetables and fish can help reduce the risk of developing depression.
“The deleterious effect of a processed food diet on depression is a novel finding,” researchers concluded. “Our research suggests that healthy eating policies will generate additional benefits to health and well-being, and that improving people’s diet should be considered as a potential target for preventing depressive disorders.”