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Exercise: More Effective Than Antidepressants?

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Recently I was reviewing the topics I will be writing about in my column, and I came across the topic of exercise and depression. I began to reflect on some of the hard times in my life and realized that my exercise regimen was always a lifesaver -- a way to feel better both physically and emotionally. It has always been my relief from emotional pain, and I know that without it those hard times may have resulted in deep depression. The most depressive times for me, for example, were going through a difficult divorce and becoming a single parent to two very young children while trying to start a new business, running that business several years later while supporting my spouse as he underwent cancer treatment, and now trying to live with the aftermath of what that cancer treatment did to him and to the marriage. Not easy stuff, right? I can't tell you how many times doctors suggested that I go on antidepressants to help me deal with these situations. But I am someone who dislikes taking drugs, and again, I know one of the best solutions for me has been exercising every day in some way. That's NOT to say that drugs are not appropriate for some people--I am not a doctor and do not profess to know what's right for everyone. That is a choice that you must make for yourself while considering your doctor's advice.

After doing some research on this topic I found that depression affects nearly 19 million adults each year. This statistic does not surprise me a bit -- I am always shocked at the number of clients I see that are on antidepressants. But I've read a number of articles that refer to many studies that have been done which support the use of exercise in the treatment of depression. The Harvard Health Publications report that the effects of exercise on depression can last longer than those of antidepressants -- without the unwanted or harmful side effects or the expense associated with drugs. In fact, in the last five years, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) has re-worked the guidelines for clinical practice in the treatment of major depression. One of the treatments included in the new guidelines is regular exercise.

Studies dating back to 1981 concluded that exercise can improve mood in people suffering from mild to moderate depression, and may even serve to help those suffering from severe depression. One of those studies was published in 1999 in the Archives of Internal Medicine in which three groups of depressed patients were studied. One group participated in an aerobic exercise program, another group was put on an antidepressant, and a third group did both. After 16 weeks, about 60-70 percent of patients in all three groups were no longer classified as having major depression. This suggests that if you're like me and you wish to avoid drugs, exercise might be an acceptable substitute for antidepressants.

Although the quickest response took place in the group taking antidepressants, the effects of exercise lasted longer. Equally important to note is that a follow-up to the above-mentioned study showed that the effects of exercise lasted longer than those of antidepressants. Researchers found that six months later those patients who continued engaging in regular exercise after the study was completed were less likely to suffer from relapses of depression.

I know studies and statistics can be boring to many of us, so consider what a long time client of mine recently said. "I know I'm depressed when there are things to do but I can't bring myself to get started. When I exercise, however, I am more focused and productive. It makes me feel like I'm doing something for me. Accomplishing something always makes me feel better."

Just this week, another client who underwent treatment for ovarian cancer two years ago said, "Exercise made all the difference in dealing with my depression through the cancer experience. It kept me functioning and gave me something that I could control. I think back at a very dark time in my life years before the cancer when I wasn't exercising, and I remember just being practically catatonic. Exercise made all the difference in the world for me."

So how exactly does exercise relieve depression? Well, we know that exercise causes your body to release endorphins -- those "good" chemicals that circulate throughout the body. These guys are great -- they do so many good things for us! In addition to improving natural immunity and reducing the perception of pain, they also serve to improve mood. Endorphins trigger positive feelings in the body which can be accompanied by a positive outlook on life. Given this information, just think what a difference exercise would make if done on a regular basis!

My hope is that the more we discuss the benefits of exercise, the more apparent it will become that it is a vital component in living a healthy, vivacious life -- a better chance at a disease-free, depression-free life. As we've discussed before in previous articles, there are ways to get motivated even if you're feeling depressed or you just dislike exercise. Find a group to interact with through exercise, get a buddy to commit to a regular exercise time with you, or hire a certified personal trainer. You don't even have to always engage in formal exercise. Just get out and move around. Hike, walk your dog, wash your car. Watch what happens when you commit to it for at least a couple months. You may be surprised to find that you can't live without it -- literally and figuratively! Furthermore, when you go through those dark times in life, as we all do, exercise is a friend that will help get you through in a healthy way. Try it -- and watch depression transform into feelings of happiness and well-being. Don't forget to keep smiling. Life is good, so get out there and move around in it!

*The information in this article is not to be used in lieu of medical advice from your doctor.