Beat the Blues with Exercise

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By Michelle Kennedy, M.S.

By Michelle Kennedy, M.S., Best Life fitness expert

Depression is a huge problem for many Americans. In fact, one in five people will be affected by depression in their lifetime. If you're one of these people, you may be relieved to know that there's an easy, inexpensive and drug-free way to alleviate some of the symptoms: Exercise! Some studies even suggest that exercise is as effective as medications at fighting depression. (It's important to note that the treatment for depression is very individual; many people find that a combo of medication, behavioral therapy and exercise is the best approach.)

There is a definite link between inactivity and depression, but scientists are reluctant to say that being sedentary causes depression. What they do know for certain is that aerobic exercise reduces feelings of depression. For instance, research from Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, shows that people who received treatment for depression, such as medication or exercise, had higher remission rates than those who got no treatment. And the people who exercised and took medication experienced fewer depressive symptoms than those in the placebo group. Another study from Diagnostic and Therapeutic Care Line in Houston found that aerobic exercise decreased fatigue and increased feelings of physical and social well-being among men who were experiencing depressive symptoms during radiation treatment for prostate cancer. There are a number studies that also show a benefit to strength training.

There are many explanations as to why exercise seems to be an effective tool for depression. Both aerobic exercise and strength training act as a diversion from negative thoughts, increase self-esteem and encourage social interactions. Beyond that, aerobic exercise also helps reduce levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, and boost levels of endorphins (a feel-good chemical also called "happy adrenaline") and monoamine (one of three neurotransmitters that send messages to the brain; low levels are associated with depression).

Wondering how much you have to do to reap the benefits? Researchers don't have an exact exercise prescription at this point. The UK National Institute of Clinical Excellence, an independent organization in London responsible for providing guidance on health and disease prevention and treatment, recommends structured, supervised exercise programs (like taking a class at the gym or working out with a trainer) for 45 minutes to one hour three days a week for 10 to 12 weeks to treat mild to moderate depression. But researchers from Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, found that even one 20-minute bout of exercise can enhance feelings of well-being for the short-term.

While all of this sounds great, if you suffer from depression, you know how hard it can be to get the motivation to get out of bed, let alone log a 20- or 60-minute workout. Plus, if you haven't been exercising, the added stress of starting a new program may be more than you can bear. The key is to find an activity you enjoy, such as walking the dog or riding your bike, and start with as much exercise as you can handle. For instance, you can try a five- or 10-minute walk or ride to begin with. That might not seem like a lot, but 10 minutes a few days a week can get your heart pumping and restore the balance of hormones in your body. It's probably best to try to start working out when you aren't in a depressive episode, otherwise you risk increasing or worsening your symptoms. Instead, wait until you start to feel a little better to lace up your sneakers. And be sure to check in with your doctor beforehand; he can help you develop a safe and effective workout plan.