MAKE no mistake, exercise is a natural antidepressant, plus you don't gain weight. The only catch is you have to go out and do it.
A 1999 Duke University study divided 150 participants with depression age 50 or more into three groups. One was put on an exercise regimen, another administered Zoloft, and a third given a combination of the two. Those in the exercise group worked out on a treadmill or stationary bicycle at 70 to 85 percent of their maximum heart rate for 30 minutes, three times a week.
At the end of four months, all three groups showed significantly lower rates of depression.
The big surprise came from a follow-up conducted six months later when it was discovered that those in the exercise group experienced significantly less relapse than those in the Zoloft or combination groups. Only eight percent of the exercise group had their depression return compared to 38 percent of the Zoloft group and 31 percent of the combination group.
As to why the combination group should fare worse than the exercise alone group, lead researcher James Blumenthal PhD speculated that: "The concurrent use of medication may undermine the psychological benefits of exercise ..."
He goes on to say: "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."
Moreover: "For each 50-minute increment of exercise, there was an accompanying 50 percent reduction in relapse risk."
Why Exercise Works Against Depression
Exercise works against depression in a number of ways:
Researchers at Nottingham Trent University (UK) claim the chemical phenylethylamine (PEA) to be a byproduct of exercise and the cause of the euphoric mood called "runner’s high." The researchers measured PEA levels in 20 men before and after exercise and discovered all but two had increased levels 24 hours later. The study’s author, Ellen Billett says that endorphins, previously thought to cause runner’s high, don’t penetrate the brain as easily as PEA does, though endorphins may still play a role. According to Hector Sabelli of Rush University in an article in WebMD: "What we have seen is that PEA metabolism is reduced in people who are depressed. If you give PEA to people with depression, about 60 percent show an immediate recovery - very fast, a matter of half an hour."
Significantly, PEA is a key ingredient in chocolate, which along with fat and sugar is thought to account for the treat's feel-good effect. One can easily imagine humankind divided into two poles, all based on how we seek our PEA fix.
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A Personal Experience
Suite101.com's Natural Health Editor, Traute Klein, describes how she sweated her way back from the abyss:
I won a three months spa membership as a door prize and started to take part in aerobics classes on a regular basis. I was not able to keep up with the rest of the class but participated to the best of my ability. To my amazement, the sustained, regular exercise heightened my well-being more than anything else I had tried. Gradually I came to experience the occasional feeling of euphoria at the end of a class ... I soon found that for me a stationary bicycle produced the euphoric feeling more readily than aerobics and it was less stressful on my injuries. That exercise also allowed me to work out by myself at times when the contact with other people was just too strenuous.
Since I have learned to communicate with people again, I have gone back to my favorite aerobic exercise, aquacising. It is the easiest on me, because it is the least aggravating on the physical injuries.
Exercise - Things to Consider
When considering an exercise regime, it pays to keep realistic goals in mind. If the body is not accustomed to activity, it is going to fight back. Don't expect to run a marathon your first week. A short walk is perfectly acceptable, and represents a giant step forward for those who have been inactive. Don't expect your depression to begin lifting until at least a few weeks, and don't look forward to slacking off when you start feeling better. Working out should be a life-long commitment.
Older people need to be especially mindful, for they tend to engage in less physical activity as they age, making them easy prey for depression, which they experience in greater numbers.
Of course, the last thing any of us seek to do when caught up in a killer depression is crawl out of the covers and try to win three gold medals. You will probably have to wait until the worst of your symptoms abate before you take the plunge. Even then, the prospect of taking one's body for a quick spin around the block seems daunting.
Make it Fun
I gave up a jogging routine very soon after I started it. It was no fun. It was work. It sucked. I had set myself up to fail. These days, I get in a good walk about three times a week. For a few years, I hung out with a group that did weekend water volleyball. More recently, I get a good work-out playing didgeridoo at drum circles.
By contrast, there's a whole industry based on the fact that we end up using our home exercise machines as clothes racks and in not showing up at gyms that we shelled out our hard-earned cash for. Lesson: find something physical that you enjoy and make it part of your routine - ballroom dancing, nature walks, swimming, gardening, whatever. You may be one of the genetically blessed who gets an endorphin rush from jogging, so all power to you.
Published 2000, latest update Jan 2, 2011, revised Dec 5, 2016
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