A blog by Araminta Jonsson

Depression is the most predominant mental health problem worldwide. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) more than 350 million people suffer with depression globally. In Europe, data shows that 27% adults in the EU have mental issues, which have contributed to 55,000 people who die yearly from suicide. Twice as many people are dying from suicide compared to car accidents.

In 2013, depression was the second leading cause of years lived with a disability worldwide, behind lower back pain. In 26 countries, depression was the primary driver of disability. In 2014 almost 20% of people in the UK aged over 16 showed symptoms of anxiety or depression - a 1.5% increase from 2013.

The most common way globally to treat depression is with antidepressant medication. However, this is not the only way. In recent years there has been more and more interest directed towards understanding the effects physical exercise could have on the wellbeing of people with mental health disorders. Although this concept isn’t as new as we may think. Back in the 80s, researchers suggested that physical fitness training could lead to an improved mood, self-concept, and work behaviour.

Today more and more research is indicating that exercise can also be used to treat depression. According to Dr Michael Craig Miller, assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, exercise can work for some people just as well as antidepressants. Although for those with severe depression exercise may not be enough on its own, it can certainly help in conjunction with medication where medication is necessary.

The effect of exercise:

Exercise has a biological impact on our bodies that contributes to many health benefits including heart disease, diabetes, reducing blood pressure levels and helping us get better quality sleep. When you participate in any form of high intensity exercise such as running, circuits, boxing etc you may have noticed that you feel great afterwards. This is due to the release of endorphins this kind of exercise stimulates. However, it’s not only high intensity exercise that can be beneficial. Low intensity exercise, when sustained over a consistent period of time, encourages the release of proteins call neurotrophic or growth factors. These neurotrophic proteins stimulate nerve cell growth which then make new connections within your brain chemistry resulting in an improved sense of wellbeing. According to Dr Miller, neuroscientists have discovered that depressed people have a smaller area of hippocampus in their brains. The hippocampus is the region of the brain that regulate mood. If this area is smaller, it is understood that mood is potentially harder to regulate. Therefore if exercise can result in growing the connections between the nerve cells within the hippocampus region of a depressed person, it stands to reason that it could help relieve their depression.

How to use exercise to treat depression:

Depressed people often lack motivation to do even the most simple of daily tasks. This is because depression causes reduced energy levels, poor quality sleep, pain and changes in appetite. Exercising can then be thought of as an impossibility for many people suffering with depression. It doesn’t have to be that way though. As little as ten minutes of exercise a day can may a difference. The better you start to feel, the more likely you will increase the amount of time you spend exercising a day. Make sure that you pick something that’s sustainable and fits in with your daily routine as exercise as a treatment for depression is not a quick fix. You need to be able to commit fully to it as part of a long term treatment plan. The goal is to find something you enjoy doing and keep it up.


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