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Depression takes the joy out of life and can break your spirit over time. Optimism is becoming a thing of the past. The feeling of energy is hard to imagine. Self-confidence disappears, replaced by doubt and apathy.
This state of mind understandably leads many people to turn to antidepressants for relief. Although this group of drugs can be a blessing for many, antidepressants also have significant drawbacks. For example, less than 50 percent of people respond positively to antidepressants in the first eight weeks of starting treatment, and only 60 percent in the first three months.1
Even for those who respond positively, there are common side effects to consider. These can include weight gain, feeling anxious, insomnia, feeling emotionally numb, and loss of sex drive.
With all these disadvantages in mind, what would you think of a different approach to dealing with depression that had none of these disadvantages and risks? No, not psychotherapy (although that would be a good choice). What about an alternative approach that doesn’t require a prescription, has no side effects, is backed by a wealth of research, and is free?
Exercise as an antidepressant
The alternative I’m thinking of is exercise. Research shows that moderate exercise three or four times a week can provide just as much help in overcoming depression as antidepressants.2
The key is that the exercise is at least of moderate intensity and that the total exercise time each week is two hours or more. For those new to exercise, this can feel daunting at first. But it didn’t.
Each of us has 168 hours in a week. Spending two or three hours practicing is well within your reach. This amounts to just over 1 percent of your week. When you consider the impact exercise is likely to have on your mood and health, that investment of time is cheap.
Some will answer But I don’t like exercise. There are two answers to this objection.
The first is So what? Maybe you don’t like brushing your teeth, but I doubt that’s stopping you from doing so. There are days when you don’t want to go to work, but you still show up. The list is endless. Refusing to do something useful just because you don’t enjoy it leads to mental stagnation.
Another answer to the I don’t like exercise question is to recognize that most people who make it part of their weekly routine eventually grow to enjoy it. Even those who don’t accept it will accept it as something they have to do and find it tolerable.
The key for those who don’t like exercise is to find something that gets their heart rate up in a way that is at least somewhat beneficial. For some it will be a brisk walk with a friend. For others it will be swimming, cycling etc.
If you’re a die-hard and hate type of exercise, then it’s best to simply aim for 10 minutes of gentle exercise at first. Even if your heart rate doesn’t go up much, that’s okay; you are simply building up your tolerance for this new activity.
Over time, you’ll get used to the routine and you’re ready to increase the time you spend exercising and the intensity you apply.
What type of exercise is best?
There have been several studies looking at what type of exercise is best for fighting depression. The answer remains unclear because many forms of exercise have been shown to be effective.
This means that you have a lot of freedom to choose what suits you best. The key to success is to stress your body enough that it needs the mental stamina to complete the task.
What makes exercise an effective antidepressant?
Research has not shed much light on the exact mechanisms that make exercise effective as an antidepressant. Neurologically, we know that exercise affects levels of the monoamine neurotransmitters dopamine, noradrenaline and serotonin. These three neurotransmitters are thought to be associated with depression.
But non-neurological factors are likely to play an equal or greater role in making exercise an effective antidepressant. These non-neurological factors are important to understand. And to understand how they might play a role (no one knows for sure right now), we need to start by looking at some common symptoms of depression.
Depressed people struggle to plan their day or take the initiative to complete tasks. Their lives lack the structure and direction that would otherwise give them a sense of progress and competence. Instead, they languish with feelings of helplessness and low self-esteem. Poor sleep is almost always a part of depression, as is a tendency to avoid socializing with others.
Now consider how following an exercise routine could help reverse these trends. An exercise routine provides a schedule, or structure for the week, that reinforces a sense of order in life. In turn, you develop a greater sense of control if you stick to an exercise schedule. Exuding a sense of control is the antidote to feelings of helplessness.
Furthermore, going to the gym increases socialization, if only by being with other motivated individuals. Exercise also often improves the quality of sleep, thereby facilitating the recovery of energy and a brighter mood.
Sticking to an exercise program brings a sense of success and feelings of accomplishment and competence. This may be especially true when one experiences improvements in strength, endurance, and overall physical functioning. Exploiting each of these strengths also increases the likelihood that one will have a more positive self-concept.
Antidepressants often play an important role in the treatment of depression, especially when the goal is to achieve rapid relief of depressive symptoms. The disadvantages of the drugs, however, can be significant and include a high rate of people who do not respond well, financial costs, side effects and the necessary reliance on a doctor to write a script.
Furthermore, drugs, compared to exercise, do not improve physical health, boost self-confidence, or promote a sense of accomplishment. Indeed, it is possible for them to facilitate a sense of dependence on an external agency (medication or doctor), rather than building optimism in their own abilities to combat depressive states.
Lower limit: Unless you have significant physical limitations, there’s no excuse not to use exercise as a way to reduce depression and lift your spirits. Once you go this route and experience the benefits, you’ll likely be hooked. Your confidence, optimism and health are likely to improve as well, and this can act as a buffer against future depressive episodes.
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