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A trip to the gym can help combat depression – here’s how

Physical activity and exercise has been shown to both prevent and help treat a wide range of mental health issues. Kate Cracknell examines the evidence.

Most of us will be very familiar with the feelgood factor of exercise: the way you can go into the gym feeling lethargic, but come out feeling energised both physically and mentally. In fact, while the media quite rightly speaks of numerous long-term benefits of exercise – its role in helping prevent type 2 diabetes, certain forms of cancer, heart disease and so on – if we’re honest, many of us are more motivated by immediate benefits.

Exercise gives you an immediate feelgood boost

I know I, for one, go to the gym primarily to feel good. Not even to look good, or get fitter, or lose weight – those are nice added bonuses of course – but simply to feel better, happier, more energetic, less stressed right now. Those are instant benefits I get each and every time I work out.

And I’m not alone in this. In a survey conducted by UK-based mental health charity MIND, 83 per cent of respondents said they exercised to help lift their mood or reduce stress, while seven out of 10 gym users with no mental health issues thought their mental wellbeing would suffer if they didn’t exercise.

But what about those who do suffer from mental health issues? Can they also benefit from exercise in a similar mood-enhancing way? The answer: yes, albeit probably not with such immediate effect. Let’s take a look at some of the evidence.

Studies show exercise reduces the risk of depression

Mental health problems are a growing public health concern the world over: 2016 data suggests that at any point in time, one in six people will have experienced a common mental health problem during the past week, with mixed depression and anxiety the most widespread of these conditions. Meanwhile WHO estimates that, by the year 2020, depression will be the second biggest cause of premature death and disability globally.

It’s a huge and growing problem, but exercise and physical activity has been proven time and again to be beneficial: studies show that physically active people have up to a 30 per cent lower risk of depression.

Approaching the topic from the opposite end of the spectrum, data suggests that people with mental health conditions are generally less physically active than the rest of the population – and that this in itself may contribute to their condition. Indeed, a study in the British Journal of Psychiatry indicated that people who “were not active in their leisure time were almost twice as likely to suffer symptoms of depression than the most active individuals. The more people engaged in physical activity in their spare time, the less chance they had of being depressed”.

Exercise can be used to treat depression

There’s also positive news for those already suffering from depression.

A new study – led by Mei Sui of the University of South Carolina in the US, published this year and based on 15 years of data – found that having good cardiorespiratory fitness could help prevent early death among men who suffer from depression. The study found that men with at least moderate cardiovascular fitness were 46 per cent less likely to die of any cause during the 15-year period than those with the lowest recorded fitness levels. Those in the highest fitness group were 53 per cent less likely to die early.

Exercise can help those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and schizophrenia

Meanwhile, the University of Manchester in the UK has probed into specific areas of mental health, unveiling studies last year which found that tailored 10-week exercise programmes can have a significant impact in reducing the symptoms of early episode psychosis among 18-35-year-olds, and that aerobic exercise can significantly help people coping with the long-term mental health condition schizophrenia. And other population groups can also benefit. A landmark research project carried out in 2015 in Sydney, Australia, concluded that individualised and targeted exercise programmes are a vital part of treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. And in a study published in Psychology & Health in 2013, previously inactive pregnant women reported significant improvements in their mood during a four-week exercise intervention programme. Other studies over the years have shown how physical activity can boost the chemical messengers that enhance emotional and mental wellbeing and contribute to pain relief; reduce anxiety and stress; increase confidence and self-esteem; and improve mood.



Doctors could prescribe exercise to those with depression

Although doctors tend to prescribe anti-depressants sooner than they prescribe exercise, this research goes to show just how effective exercise can be in treating mental health conditions.

As a result, as long ago as 2004, a report by the UK’s Chief Medical Officer concluded that exercise and physical activity can and should be considered for both its preventative and therapeutic effects for depression and anxiety.

And Mei Sui, lead researcher in the University of South Carolina study noted above, points out that as even moderate levels of fitness are associated with a lower risk of dying, prescribing exercise to those with mental health issues – especially depression and anxiety – could dramatically reduce early deaths. “Our findings underscore the importance of promoting physical activity to maintain a healthy level of cardiorespiratory fitness in individuals with emotional distress,” she said.

Exercise offers mental health benefits for all

Anyone suffering from depression, anxiety or any other form of serious mental health issue should of course seek medical advice – and certainly not take themselves off any medication without their doctor’s approval.

Nevertheless, whether prescribed alongside medication or as an alternative to pills, all the evidence points to a significant role for exercise, both in terms of treating mental health conditions and/or preventing their recurrence.

And for those of us who simply feel a bit flat after a long day at work, the endorphin rush – the ‘happy hormones’ released by a workout – will always make a trip to the gym worth the effort.

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