Almost 19 million Americans are thought to suffer from depressive disorders. Not to mention only 23 percent of individuals with clinical depression seek treatment, only 10 percent of which receive adequate care. However, researchers may have discovered a new "drug" for depression most anyone can take advantage of and utilize: Exercise.
In a study, which involved 80 adults aged 20 to 45 years who were diagnosed with mild to moderate depression, researchers looked at exercise alone to treat the condition and found:
- Depressive symptoms were cut almost in half in those individuals who participated in 30-minute aerobic exercise sessions, three to five times a week after 12 weeks
- Those who exercised with low-intensity for three and five days a week showed a 30 percent reduction in symptoms
- Participants who did stretching flexibility exercises 15 to 20 minutes three days a week averaged a 29 percent decline
The results of this study are similar to that of other studies, which involved patients with mild or moderate depression being treated with antidepressants or cognitive therapy -- proving patients need not rely on drugs to treat depression.
American Journal of Preventive Medicine January 2005;28(1):1-8 (Free Full-Text Article)
Medical News Today January 24, 2005.
When using exercise as a drug, it is important to set a goal of 60 to 90 minutes per day, every day. Obviously, depending on your current condition, you may need to work slowly up to this level. My experience is that weight-bearing exercises, such as walking, jogging, running, Nordic Track and Health Rider are better than cycling and swimming. If you have access to a health club, my favorite piece of equipment there is the elliptical machine.
Cycling and swimming take far longer to produce the same benefit and each have their own problems. If you are cycling outdoors you run the risk of being killed or injured by a motor vehicle. Swimming is usually done in chlorinated pools, which has its own problems. If you are able to swim in the ocean, the salt water provides an incredible synergism that far exceeds the value of the exercise.
However, one of the largest obstacles faced by people who haven't exercised in some time is how to get started. Just the thought of starting an exercise program can be intimidating. Whenever patients ask me what kind of activity is best, my answer is always the same: Walking is a wonderful way to get started. It is very low impact so it is easy on the joints.
In fact, most people find it is simple and enjoyable to fit a walk into their day. It is also one of the most cost effective ways to get exercise, as it does not require much training and the only equipment needed is a good pair of walking shoes. You can walk just about anywhere and you can do it anytime.
So what makes walking a workout?
This depends on your initial fitness level. If you are starting out in poor shape, slow-paced walking will produce benefits, but if you are starting out in better condition, you will need to walk faster and/or farther to see any results. Regardless of your starting level, the more vigorous your walking pace, the more dramatic the conditioning effects will be. When walking for exercise you should walk at a steady pace that is fast enough to cause your heart rate to rise.
In my experience most people increase their fitness level relatively rapidly while walking and the only way they can continue to stress themselves enough while walking is to walk on a treadmill with an incline. This works well for many, especially during the cold winter months, but less so for those who want to exercise outdoors in the nice weather. Some of the emotional health benefits of exercise include:
- Feel better
- Sleep better
- Have a better outlook overall
The practical problem with using exercise in depression, however, is that the desire to pursue any activity, let alone exercise, is not very high. The converse though also needs to be considered: Just because one exercises regularly that does not mean you cannot become depressed. Exercise makes it easier to treat depression, but it certainly does not cure it in everyone. If this is the case for you, you may want to consider methods such as the energy psychology tool Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), to address underlying emotional triggers to your depression.
For serious depressions I would not advise using this tool by yourself, but rather as a supplement to work with a trained EFT practitioner. I suggest taking a look at Gary Craig's EFT Practitioner Referrals. Many of these therapists even offer a free 15-minute phone session in which you can ask them questions to see if you connect.