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Study: 12 Percent of Depression Could Be Prevented With 1 Hour of Exercise a Week

October 19, 2017

Story at-a-glance

  • In an 11-year study, people who engaged in regular leisure-time exercise for one hour a week were less likely to become depressed
  • Those who didn’t exercise were 44 percent more likely to become depressed compared to those who did so for at least one to two hours a week
  • Twelve percent of depression cases could be prevented by exercising at least one hour a week

By Dr. Mercola

Exercise has long been viewed as an antidote to depression, but for those in the throes of a depressive episode or even a blue mood, it can be hard to summon up the motivation to get moving. Recent research suggests, however, that even a minimal amount of exercise may be enough to combat depression in some people — as minimal as one hour a week. The study was large, involving nearly 34,000 adults who were healthy, with no symptoms of common mental disorders, at the start of the study.

The participants were followed for 11 years, during which time it was revealed that people who engaged in regular leisure-time exercise for one hour a week were less likely to become depressed. On the flipside, those who didn't exercise were 44 percent more likely to become depressed compared to those who did so for at least one to two hours a week.1

"The majority of this protective effect occurred at low levels of exercise and was observed regardless of intensity," the researchers said, adding that, "assuming the relationship is causal, 12 percent of future cases of depression could have been prevented if all participants had engaged in at least one hour of physical activity each week."2

Study author Samuel Harvey, associate professor of workplace mental health at the Black Dog Institute and the University of New South Wales, told Time, "There is good evidence that physical activity can help people recover from depression … Our study takes this a bit further and shows that exercise may also have a role in preventing people developing depression in the first place."3

In this case, part of the protective effect of exercise was attributed to its social and physical health benefits, though there are many routes by which exercise is good for your mental health and brain.

Staying Active Is Good for Your Mood

In my 2008 interview with Dr. James Gordon, a world-renowned expert in using mind-body medicine to heal depression, he stated that physical exercise is at least as good as antidepressants for helping people who are depressed, in part because it increases serotonin in your brain and in part because it increases brain cells in your hippocampus, which are sometimes reduced in people with depression. He's far from the only one to come to this conclusion.

In 2013, a meta-analysis published in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews found that exercise is moderately more effective than a control intervention, which in some cases was pharmaceuticals, for reducing symptoms of depression.4 Separate research published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that aerobic exercise "at a dose consistent with public health recommendations" is an effective treatment for mild to moderate depression.5

In addition, a 2017 study revealed that exercise appears to be a "promising and acceptable" treatment for adolescents and young adults with depression, adding that, for best results, the exercise should potentially be engaged in multiple times per week over eight or more weeks and involve:6

Similarly, but in contrast to the featured study, a 2014 study reviewing exercise program variables in the treatment of depression also found supervised aerobic exercise engaged in three times a week at moderate intensity for a minimum of nine weeks was useful for treating depression.7 So there are still some questions about what type of exercise, what intensity and how often is best for treating depression, but what's clear is that exercise should be on your agenda if you're struggling with depression or low mood.

In addition to aerobic activity, mind-body exercise like yoga has also shown promise. For instance, Iyengar yoga, which focuses on detail and precise alignment of posture combined with deep breathing, reduces symptoms of depression in those who are not taking medication or who have been taking the same medication for at least three months.8

Still more research, this time involving nursing students, a population among which depression is common, found that both physical exercise and mindfulness meditation were effective in managing depression (with the meditation being even more effective than the exercise in this case).9

Exercise Boosts Calm, Helps Buffer Stress — Try This 3-Minute Mood Booster

Exercise benefits your brain and mood via multiple mechanisms, including creating new, excitable neurons along with new neurons designed to release the GABA neurotransmitter, which inhibits excessive neuronal firing, helping to induce a natural state of calm10 — similar to the way anti-anxiety drugs work, except that the mood-boosting benefits of exercise both occur immediately after a workout and continue on in the long term.

In addition to the creation of new neurons, including those that release the calming neurotransmitter GABA, exercise boosts levels of potent brain chemicals like serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine, which may help buffer some of the effects of stress.11 What's more, anandamide levels are known to increase during and following exercise. Anandamide is a neurotransmitter and endocannabinoid produced in your brain that temporarily blocks feelings of pain and depression.

It's a derivative of the Sanskrit word "bliss," and a deficiency is associated with increased anxiety and stress.12 Even in the immediacy, if you're looking for a quick way to boost your mood, doing a short, high-intensity workout will likely do the trick. Undergraduate students who were more physically active had higher pleasant-activated feelings like excitement and enthusiasm overall than people who were less physically active, and they reported feeling more of them on days when they engaged in more physical activity than normal.13

Please keep in mind that physical activity should include not just "exercise" but also plenty of non-exercise daily movements, such that you're in motion more so than not (except while you're sleeping). Non-exercise movement is a foundational piece of optimal health — even more so than a regimented fitness routine, but ideally you should strive to do them both.

If you're currently sedentary, you can start by simply sitting less but, ultimately, I recommend aiming for at least 7,000 to 10,000 steps each day and limiting sitting to less than three hours. That being said, if you want to give your mood a boost right now, try the nitric oxide (NO) dump exercise developed by Dr. Zach Bush, which I demonstrate in the video below. In addition to stimulating your brain, this simple exercise will help you maintain homeostasis in your body, and it takes only about three minutes.

I suggest doing this workout two to three times a day, unless you're injured or recovering from a hard workout, and it may serve as a way to help keep your mood elevated. As you'll see, you can do it anywhere — and I do, at the airport, waiting for luggage, in the lounge. Don't worry about how it looks, focus instead on how great it makes you feel.

Sleep Is Also a Must for Relieving Depression

While the focus of this article is exercise, I do want to point out the importance of healthy sleep for a healthy mind. Lack of sleep has long been linked to depression, but it was thought that insomnia was a symptom of depression and not the other way around. It now seems that insomnia may precede depression in some cases and may even double your risk of becoming depressed.14

Further, sleep therapy is regarded as a valuable form of treatment. A 2014 study funded by the National Institute of Mental Health found that 87 percent of depression patients who resolved their insomnia using cognitive behavior therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) had major improvements to their depression, with symptoms disappearing after eight weeks whether the person took an antidepressant or a placebo pill.15

Unlike sleep hygiene therapy, which focuses on regular exercise, avoiding caffeine and alcohol at night, and promotion of other healthful habits for restful sleep, CBT-1 teaches people to reserve their bed only for sleeping, and involves the following guidance:

The study found that those who overcame their insomnia using this program recovered from their depression at nearly twice the rate of those who did not. People with evening chronotypes, otherwise known as night owls, also tend to have more symptoms of depression compared to those who go to bed early and wake early,16 so strategies to regulate your circadian rhythm, like exposure to sunlight during the day and avoidance of blue light at night, could benefit your mental health.

Ideally, go to bed by 9 p.m. or 10 p.m. and wear blue-light-blocking glasses after the sun goes down. EMFs are also known to disrupt sleep, so take steps to lower your exposure, especially at night while you're sleeping.

Options include turning off your Wi-Fi at night or, even better, don't use Wi-Fi and switch to wired Ethernet (and hardwire as many devices as possible in your home and office to avoid Wi-Fi fields). You can also install a Faraday cage (copper- and/or silver-threaded fabric) around your bed. Getting back to exercise, this will also help to improve your sleep, which is yet another way it may lower your risk of depression.

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Sources and References

  • 1, 3 Time October 3, 2017
  • 2 The American Journal of Psychiatry October 3, 2017
  • 4 Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2013 Sep 12;9:CD004366
  • 5 Am J Prev Med. 2005 Jan;28(1):1-8.
  • 6 Psychol Med. 2017 Oct 10:1-20.
  • 7 J Sci Med Sport. 2014 Mar;17(2):177-82.
  • 8 The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. March 2017, 23(3): 201-207
  • 9 J Nurs Educ. 2017 Oct 1;56(10):599-604.
  • 10 The Journal of Neuroscience May 1, 2013; 33(18):7770-7
  • 11 CNN January 13, 2016
  • 12 Transl Psychiatry. 2014 Jul 8;4:e408.
  • 13 Sport Exerc Psychol. 2011 Dec;33(6):884-902.
  • 14, 15 NYTimes.com November 18, 2013
  • 16 AJMC April 3, 2017
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