Take Black Dog for a walk
Anthony Brett explains how exercise can combat depression
With our increasingly complex lifestyles, it is likely that many of us will experience some form of depression or anxiety in our lives (one in six is an accepted ratio).
Depression can manifest in many ways, from sleep disturbance to debilitating clinical depression that makes us feel as if we cannot do anything.
The good news for us all is that adopting a simple exercise regime can help combat the symptoms of anxiety and depression, and put us back in control. According to the fearsomely named Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders there are nine commonly accepted symptoms of depression, of which any six have to be present to be considered ‘depressed’. If you don’t have all six, does that mean you’re fine? Do you consider yourself depressed at all? It doesn’t really matter. Wouldn’t you like to simply feel better? Exercise is the key.
Depression can have many elements, but what are common are the PHYSICAL symptoms. Brain scans can show reduced activity in the brain and a reduction in the size and activity of the amygdala and hippocampus, parts of the brain involved in mood and emotion. This is why we feel demotivated, unhappy or dazed. The result is a tendency toward a reduction of physical activity. This becomes a vicious circle, as well as the physical problems caused by a lack of exercise.
How will exercise help me feel better?
There are several theories.
Neurotransmitters: One theory is centred on neurotransmitters, chemicals that allow messages to be passed throughout our brain and nervous system. These three chemicals, norepinephrine, dopamine and serotonin have been shown by clinical trials to be lacking in people suffering from depression.
Studies have shown that where aerobic exercise is prescribed as a treatment, neurotransmitter production increases to ‘normal’ or better levels, and mood improves. People talk about the ‘endorphin rush’ after exercise, and associated improvements in mood and pain relief for any niggles they are suffering.
Connectivity theory: A second theory centres not on the neurotransmitters themselves, but the number of connections in the brain to transmit them. This ‘connectivity’ theory is based on the fact that new neurons and neural networks are produced every time we do something new, or something that challenges us. The more active we are, both mentally and physically, the better our mood due to greater brain growth and connectivity. The more people we meet, the more we experience, the more networks we develop, and the more active our brain is.
Neither theory is mutually exclusive, and neither is yet fully understood, but clinicians recognise value in both, and their common thread - that exercise works!
Science aside, there are many other reasons to exercise to treat depression.
Counteracting social isolation: Often people with depression feel isolated and alone. Exercise can be a great way to meet people and interact, renew old friendships or create new ones.
A feeling of being in control: Depression often leaves people with a sense that they are not in control, a feeling sometimes reinforced by taking medication to feel better. With exercise, you are fully in control, reinforcing your self image and feeling better about yourself. Taking ownership of your feelings and working to improve them helps to remove the sense of helplessness.
OK, so what should I do now?
Speak to your GP. Exercise has long been recognised by British doctors as important for mental health and there are around 1300 exercise referral schemes operating in the UK at present. They may be able to help you access a gym where you can work with qualified, experienced and insured trainers who can help you. You may decide to do this on your own, in which case discuss your needs in depth with several trainers until you find the one you feel can best help you. Studies show that exercise and antidepressants can work well together.
Set realistic goals. Be sensible and take small steps initially. A good trainer will work with you to set realistic, challenging yet achievable goals that will improve your fitness and self esteem slowly but surely. Don’t plan on running marathons in a few weeks. Remember you are training to feel better, so why introduce failure and feel bad again?
Start thinking about feeling better. Brain chemistry and mood improves just by thinking about feeling good. Before you begin your exercise, relax, think of a time when you felt good, and recall what it felt like. Take this feeling on with you. State management is a great way to generate motivation. The best trainers are experienced state managers and motivators and some now incorporate NLP (neuro linguistic programming) skills into their sessions. They can help you to create and maintain a resourceful state inside and out of the gym.
Have fun and choose an activity you enjoy. You’ve made a great decision to exercise, so give yourself the best chance to succeed by challenging and rewarding yourself. Don’t simply sign up for the latest exercise class on someone else’s say so. Try lots of things until you find something that you really enjoy.
It is clear that all the evidence shows that depression does not need to be a life sentence. If you or someone you know suffers from depression, then getting them exercising is an ideal way to begin the process of recovery from this debilitating condition. In addition, maintaining an exercise regime could be a way of reducing or even preventing severe depression occurring in the first place, or even to help you maintain a positive outlook in life! Personal trainers are the ideal people to discuss setting up an exercise programme that is appropriate to you.
Before you begin an exercise programme for the first time always consult your doctor.
- Anthony Brett is an experienced trainer, nutritionist and NLP Practitioner. He runs his own training company Pro Edge Nutrition Strength and Conditioning in Liverpool. This article first appeared on YourDoc Medical.
- Photo by Luigi Guidobono Cavalchini.
- Ratey, J.J. (2008; Quercus) SPARK! How Exercise Will Improve The Performance Of Your Brain (pp 125).
- Bear MF Connors BW and Paradiso MA (2001; Lippincott Williams & Wilkins) Neuroscience: Exploring the Brain (2nd edition)
- Society for Neuroscience (2007, November 9). Antidepressants, Exercise, Age, Even Food Intake, Affect Generation Of New Brain Cells.
Page created on June 1st, 2011
Page updated on June 1st, 2011