Since 1949 May has been designated as National Mental Health Month for the purpose of eliminating the stigma associated with mental illness by raising awareness. One of the most common mental health conditions is depression. New research from Boston University School of Public Health has found that depression has been increasing in the United States and life with COVID for more than two years has accelerated it rapidly. In 2021 the number of people suffering from depression increased more than 32 percent, affecting 1 in every 3 American adults. However, research also has good news to offer: one of the most understated benefits of exercise is mental health! Specifically, aerobic exercise (exercise that increases your heart rate for 30 minutes or more) such as walking, biking, running, swimming, hiking, elliptical & stepper machines to name a few, is the secret to “runner’s high.” This exercise euphoria is not limited to runners alone, but all who engage in aerobic exercise are more likely to experience high energy, positive attitude, and mental wellness.
Physical activity, specifically aerobic exercise, is a scientifically proven useful tool for preventing and easing depression symptoms. Studies in the British Journal of Medicine and the Journal of Exercise and Sports Science found that depression scores were significantly reduced in groups that engaged in aerobic running, jogging or walking programs, 30-45 minutes 3-5 days per week for 10-12 weeks when compared to a control group and a psychotherapy counseling group.
Depression is the most common mental disorder and is twice as common among women as in men. Symptoms include: fatigue, sleeplessness, decreased appetite, decreased sexual interest, weight change, and constipation. Many of these symptoms are likely to bring an individual to their family physician.
HOW EXERCISE REDUCES DEPRESSION
According to research, exercise reduces depression in two ways, psychologically (mentally) and physiological (physically).
Psychological or Mental Benefits of Exercise on Depression:
- Helps a person gain control over their lives
- Increases self-esteem
- Diverts attention away from worry, concern or guilt
- Improves mood – with visible signs of improvement in physique & body weight
- Increases sense of pleasure and satisfaction
- Anger management – release pent-up frustration, anger and hostility
Physiological or Physical Benefits of Exercise on Depression:
- Increase in brain serotonin (natural mood elevator chemical in brain)
- Increase in beta-endorphins (natural mood, stress & pain control chemical in brain)
- Improvement in natural sleep patterns
HOW TO BEGIN EXERCISE FOR DEPRESSION
- Consult your primary care physician to confirm the diagnosis of depression. Be sure that your symptoms are not related to other health problems. Also, if you are using antidepressant or other medications discuss the impact it may have on your exercise program with your physician.
- Recognize and fight depression symptoms that are contrary to or prohibit physical activity such as: fatigue, lack of energy, slow motor skills.
Work hard to recognize and overcome these symptoms to begin an exercise program. An aerobic exercise routine should eventually lessen these symptoms.
- Be realistic. Expect that aerobic exercise will take time to have a noticeable benefit. Do not get overly ambitious and set yourself up for failure. The studies that demonstrated benefits took place over 12 weeks.
- Begin slowly with an aerobic exercise program that is practical and destined to succeed. For example: inactive and deconditioned people should begin walking 5 minutes per day, 3-5 days per week for 1 week. Then, add 3-5 minutes each week until you attain 30-45 minutes per walk 3-5 times per week. Younger and fitter people can begin to walk for 15 minutes and continue until they attain 45-60 minutes per walk, 3-5 times per week. Remember, what seems impossible today will be easier and routine in 3-4 weeks so JUST DO IT !
- Find a pleasurable environment: a beautiful park (Nay Aug), a scenic lake (Lake Scranton), quiet countryside (rural farmlands of Dalton). Use a mall in inclement weather.
- Find a friendly, uplifting group to walk, talk and exercise with. This may be more appropriate for people feeling isolated or withdrawn. Others may enjoy the peace and quiet of exercising and meditating alone.
- Be specific and compliant! Make a serious commitment. Keep a journal or exercise log. Mark a calendar. 30-45 minutes, 3-5 days per week – NO EXCUSES! Get and exercise buddy you can count on and help keep you compliant!
- Make it fun! Mix it up. Walk 3 days, swim or bike 1-2 days, some days alone, some days with a buddy.
- BE RELIGIOUS! Be religious about exercise BUT don’t get too compulsive!