Last Tuesday, October 10th, was World Mental Health Day. Conversations about depression, anxiety, and other invisible ailments have increasingly seen the spotlight in recent years. Advocates like the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have helped draw our attention to them, emphasizing that mental health is just as important as physical health.
But it is remiss, in many cases, to think that the two are not connected.
Yes, we’ve all heard about those feel-good brain chemicals called endorphins and the “runner’s high” that some folks manage to achieve. But did you know that exercise actually increases the growth of nerve cells and new nerve connections in the brain? Yeah, neither did I.
The difference comes from the intensity and duration of exercise. Endorphin release is typically associated with high-intensity exercise, such as a long run that you may only do once a week (think marathon training, for example). On the other hand, low-intensity exercise, performed consistently over time, causes the brain to release proteins that result in growth of new nerve cells and connections.
How is this related to a decrease in depression?
The additional nerve connections born of consistent exercise can improve brain function. In a patient with depression, the part of the brain that regulates mood is smaller than it is in a person who doesn’t suffer from depression. The growth of new nerve cells, and new nerve cell connections, improve the function in this area of the brain, reducing the symptoms of depression.
Many are quick to point out that not all depression can be treated with exercise alone. I’m not an MD and can’t speak to the biological truth of that, but scientists from Duke University have challenged that way of thinking with compelling research.
Duke University’s SMILE Studies (Standard Medical Intervention versus Long-term Exercise), conducted in 1999 and again in 2016 demonstrated that a group of patients receiving antidepressant medications showed the same improvement in depressive symptoms as the exercise group at the end of a sixteen week study. The results suggested that the exercise regimen was just as effective as the medication in reducing symptoms of depression. Furthermore, at a ten-month follow-up, those who had continued a regular exercise regimen after the study were 50% less likely to be depressed than those who hadn’t maintained a routine of physical activity. A good (layman’s terms) summary of the studies is here under, “The Duke Smile Studies”.
Other common symptoms of depression, such as trouble sleeping through the night and loss of appetite, can be relieved with exercise, too. Ever gone for a long hike or spent a day doing yard work and been ravenous afterward? And how did you sleep that night?
The big question, of course, is how do you get started?
If you’ve ever suffered from depression, or known someone who has, you may already understand that it isn’t easy to just “get started”. Depression, like all mental health disorders, is an invisible battle. And yet the answer for how to get started is simple (which, you’ll note, is not the same as being easy):
Move your body in some fashion. Make yourself MOVE for 5 minutes, even if it’s just doing laps around your home. Or stand still and stretch. If you can tie movement to an activity that brings you joy, do that. Garden. Walk to the coffee shop. Or . . . drive to the coffee shop and walk around with your latte.
Build up to 10 minutes, then 15 or 20. It may take time, but be patient with yourself.
As always, it’s important to keep your MD looped in. They’re in the best position to diagnose your situation and advise accordingly. It may be best in a given situation to continue standard medical treatment while incorporating a healthy level of exercise. Let me be clear: I’m in no way suggesting that anyone should ignore the advice of their doctor or neglect the medical care they have been prescribed. I am suggesting that exercise and physical well-being is an underused weapon in our arsenal against mental health disorders.
The Bottom Line: Adding exercise and movement to your life is never a bad thing. And if it can double down and improve your mental well-being in addition to your physical health, why WOULDN’T you do it?
This blog reflects my personal opinions only and nothing I write is in any way meant to constitute medical advice and should not be relied upon to determine a medical diagnosis or courses of treatment. Consult your physician to assist you with making decisions about your health and health care needs.