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Exercising Away Depression

By Sean M. Kenney

Several studies have found that exercise and activity can greatly help alleviate the symptoms of depression and help improve the quality of individuals who suffer from depression. Though the exact reasons why exercise has a positive impact on depression aren't clear, the findings are promising.

A survey by the National Ambulatory Care states that approximately 7 million primary care visits are made annually for depression. Depressed individuals are also more apt to develop cardiovascular problems.

How Exercise May Help

Exercise may be an effective way to manage depression for several reasons:

    First of all, exercise that involves the use of large muscle groups may help relieve the feelings of "pent-up" anxiety. Moving, stretching the muscles, the freedom of full-range of motion, and increasing circulation, etc., may help individuals release tension and aggression.

    Secondly, exercise improves one's physique, weight and overall appearance. This can certainly help improve one's mood through enhanced self-esteem and confidence. Several of my clients have reported feeling less pressure due to their ability to eat more freely since they exercise.

    Being in control brings us to a third point. Individuals who exercise often times feel better because they feel they are in control of themselves, their body and thus, their lives. A sense of mastery comes with the improved self-esteem exercise provides. 

    Finally, exercise has been shown to produce beta-endorphins, the body's own morphine-like painkillers and source of euphoria. This "feel good" sensation is often referred to as "runner's high".

Exercise: How Much and How Often

Cardiovascular exercise can be defined as defined as exercise that elevates the heart rate and sustains it for at least 20 minutes. If one can go 30 or 40 minutes, that would be even better, but start slowly. Running, biking, swimming, stair climbing and even walking at a brisk pace are all ideal examples of cardiovascular activities.

Aim for such activity at least three times per week, or every other day. Cardiovascular exercise may not only improve your mood, but your weight, energy level, blood chemistry and blood pressure as well.

When designing an exercise program for yourself or individuals with depression, a few additional factors need to be considered:

Keep goals realistic. Set small, realistic and measurable goals. Be sure to take baseline measurements of fitness prior to starting the program so you can chart progress. Weight, body fat percentage, BMI, resting pulse rate, flexibility, circumferential measurements, etc., are all simple, yet good indicators of fitness. Record the results in a journal for later reference.

Emphasize the pleasurable benefits of exercise. Many people struggle in the beginning, at least until positive changes begin to occur i.e., decreased weight, increased energy, etc. The first four to six weeks of a program can be the most critical. Reward positive behavior and consistent exercise. Contrary to what so many infomercials claim, the benefits don't happen overnight, but I can honestly say, they will happen.

Applaud adherence. More is not better. Keep exercise intensity down and exercise more frequently. If each workout is a grueling ordeal that produces great pain the morning after, how long will you continue to do it? Replace the old adage "no pain, no gain" with "train, don't strain."

Depression is one of the most treatable mental disorders. Due to feelings of fatigue and hopelessness, physical activity can be challenging, but an honest attempt should be made. Exercise has been shown to be a useful tool for easing the symptoms of depression. A recent study from Duke University even found that while the anti-depressant drug Prozac eased symptoms quicker, 16 weeks down the road, individuals who exercised three times per week experienced symptom relief similar to those individuals who took Prozac. Even in extreme cases, exercise, combined with therapy and medication, can allow one to enjoy a better quality of life.
 



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