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May 8, 2024

Exercise: Nature’s Anti-depressant

Mental Health Awareness Month has been observed in May in the US since 1949. Its purpose is to raise awareness and educate the public about mental illnesses and strategies for attaining mental health and wellness. It also draws attention to suicide, often caused by mental illness. Mental Health Awareness month also strives to reduce the stigma (negative attitudes and misconceptions) that surround mental illnesses.

Every year the American Psychological Association publishes their Stress in America report, which describes the current stresses Americans struggle with. The report for 2023 describes us as a nation recovering from collective trauma. The COVID-19 pandemic officially ended May 11, 2023, but we are still dealing with the post-traumatic effects.

In addition to the pandemic, we’ve experienced several global conflicts, increased racial issues, inflation, and a political climate that’s about as unstable as it’s ever been.

Although the Stress in America report says we are recovering from the trauma caused by all we’ve been through since 2020, we don’t seem to be recovering well. In 2023 more than one-third (37%) of adults reported having a diagnosed mental health condition.

Let’s face it, the world we live in is extremely stressful. And that stress translates to mental health issues for many of us. Medication and therapy are the most common forms of treatment for depression and other mental health issues. But what about exercise? Can it work as a powerful antidepressant?

Exercise has the unique ability to simultaneously improve the physical and mental health of an individual, even at levels below public health recommendations. The U.S. Physical Activity Guidelines have recently acknowledged that physical activity improves cognitive function and decreases anxiety and depression. Numerous studies have shown the positive impact of exercise on depressive symptoms to the point of remission. Let’s look at what some of those studies have to say.

A meta-analysis published in 2023 looked at 17 randomized control trials involving 1,021 participants regarding suicidal thoughts and behaviors. The study found that exercise did not have an effect on suicidal thoughts, but it did significantly reduce suicide attempts. This study is a little discouraging, but probably realistic. It implies that exercise might not necessarily change your thoughts, but it can change your actions.

A study conducted in 2015 found exercise just as beneficial as cognitive behavioral therapy when dealing with depression. The 12-week intervention study included 945 adults experiencing mild to moderate depression. Some of the adults received cognitive therapy for 12 weeks, the other group participated in supervised exercise three times a week. Depression severity reduced significantly in both groups, and exercise intervention proved just as effective as therapy.

Link was here, but I think moving it to the results draws more attention to the point of the statement. And it’s consistent with our usual process of linking to the results.

The most interesting study I came across, published in May 2023, compared the effects of antidepressants or running therapy on mental and physical health in patients with depression and anxiety disorders. The study involved 141 participants with depression or anxiety. One group received antidepressants (Lexapro or Zoloft) for 16 weeks. The other group was required to run for 30 minutes two times a week. Remission rates of depression at the end of 16 weeks was 44.8% for antidepressants and 43.3% for running. Both treatments had comparable results for improving mental health. But there’s more . . .

The running group saw improvements in blood pressure, heart rate, waist circumference and weight.

If you’re depressed, reducing your waist circumference and losing some weight will definitely help you feel better. Again, exercise has the ability to improve physical and mental health.

The final study I want to share focused on brain plasticity—a process that involves adaptive structural and functional changes to the brain. A meta-analysis in 2020 examined the effects of exercise on brain plasticity and depression. Depression can change the physical structure of the brain. Research has shown that both aerobic and resistance exercise can reshape the brain structure of depressive patients. Exercise actually reshapes and strengthens neural connections in the brain similar to the way it strengthens and reshapes muscles and peripheral nerves.

The evidence for the role of exercise in treating mental health issues is overwhelmingly convincing. If you’re feeling down, head to the gym. Or, even better, get outside for a walk, a bike ride, or even 30 minutes of play.

If you have a friend who’s feeling down, get them to the gym. Or get them outside with you for a 30-minute walk.

Let’s kick the stigma of mental health. We’ve all been there at some time or another. And start using exercise to heal our minds along with our bodies.

Stay Strong,

Bo Railey