In recent years, depression has become an all too common diagnosis. In fact, between 2005 to 2015 depression rose significantly amongst Americans aged 12 and older. More young adults find themselves developing depression than ever before and depression diagnoses increased by 33% from 2013 to 2016. Nearly one in 12 Americans deal with depression, but how are they dealing with it?
For most of those diagnosed with depression, treatments options often involve medication or talk therapy. And while both of these treatments have their benefits and are certainly necessary for certain cases, science is starting to understand the role that lifestyle plays in treating depression, specifically exercise. According to Dr. Michael Craig Miller, assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, exercise “works as well as antidepressants”. He also adds that “exercise alone isn’t enough for someone with severe depression”, but it’s a tool that could help many struggling with depression move away from medications that could ultimately cause difficult side-effects.
A recent study published by researchers Felipe Barreto Schuch (from the University of Santa Maria in Brazil), and Brendon Stubbs (from King’s College in London) proves that exercise needs to be incorporated into the potential treatments of depression. Stuck and Stubbs followed 267,000 individuals and found that those who exercised more had lower depression rates of 17-41%, regardless of age, gender, or nationality. They also found that when individuals who already suffer from depression began to practice regular exercise, 40-50% of them responded significantly in a positive way.
Clearly exercise has a positive effect on our mental health, but what’s causing those good feelings? We all know that classic line from Legally Blonde, you know the one about exercise and endorphins and happy people, but Elle Woods was really on to something with that statement. High-intensity exercises release feel-good chemicals in the body known as endorphins, but the same happens with low-intensity exercise practiced over time. Consistent exercise can cause nerve cells to grow and create new connections that stimulate the brain and boost our moods. And of course, exercise is also known to help reduce inflammation in the body, which has also been linked to depression. Working out in a group setting can also help to boost confidence and form connections with others. The connection between exercise and happiness is extremely apparent and hopefully, exercise will become a tried and true form of treatment.
But the real challenge for those already suffering from depression is getting started. Mild to severe depression can often manifest itself physically, making it hard to get out of bed and have the motivation to do anything. It’s a tough cycle to break, but studies show that it doesn’t take much physical exercise to boost mood. When first starting out, all it takes is a daily five to ten-minute walk. Slowly but surely, those walks will get longer and longer and possibly develop into other forms of exercise. The key is to stick to movement that is sustainable and fun for you. Just as depression is highly individualized, so to should be the treatment.