Exercise and Mental Health: Using Fitness to Fight Depression and Anxiety
If you follow me on Instagram (@ironbeaverfitness), you know I suffer from anxiety and panic disorder. This is something I have dealt with since childhood, but most predominantly since my mid-teens.
When I was diagnosed, there was no array of pills to choose from to alleviate the situation. This was pre-Xanax, people. Prozac had just come on the market and was not being pushed hard, especially at teenagers. I was basically given two options: sink or swim.
Truth be told, I did a little of both at first, until I found solace in the weight room. The more I worked out, the better I felt. If I fell off the wagon, the more frequent my old symptoms became.
When I spent time lifting and doing aerobic exercise, my anxiety cleared up. Not only did I have more energy and less worry, but my mind was so much sharper and more focused. It was quite apparent exercise was helping me, but I never had the definitive proof how or why, until science caught up.
Was Exercise Helping My Anxiety?
The World Health Organization calls depression “the leading cause of disability worldwide.” Let that sink in for a second. The. Leading. Cause. And that’s just depression! The use of prescription drugs for depression and anxiety has skyrocketed in the last two decades.
Unfortunately, what we are finding out is that many of these people are only marginally better, if at all, than where they started. They may also be dealing with antidepressant side effects like headaches, nausea, fatigue, sexual dysfunction and weight gain.
In 1999, a study concluded exercise was just as beneficial as antidepressants for older adults with moderate depression. Then, in 2006, a meta-analysis of studies was conducted, and the findings in favor of exercise were so strong it actually suggested exercise should be prescribed to people with depression.
In 2011, yet another study took people who hadn’t responded to SSRI medications and made them exercise, leading to a 30% full remission. This means exercise is as effective or sometimes more beneficial than medication for moderate depression and anxiety.
How Does Exercise Help Depression and Anxiety?
But what does exercise do that makes it so special?
Most people assume exercise merely makes you feel good, or gives you a temporary “high.” But that is only the tip of the iceberg. According to the book “Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain,” By John J. Ratey, MD, exercise not only excites feel-good chemicals, but it actually changes your brain.
Exercise increases your levels of serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine. These are the chemicals that give you a sense of happiness, self-confidence and satisfaction. It also builds connections in your brain, by boosting growth-factor chemicals and essentially growing (or re-growing) pathways. Meaning, you get mentally stronger, as well as physically stronger.
Just as you tear up and rebuild muscle tissue, you rebuild your brain, too. Imagine a barren tree in your skull with a few scraggly branches. Now imagine that tree unfurling and becoming a mighty oak, full of twigs and lush with leaves. That is essentially what starts to happen with regular, vigorous exercise. A healthy amount of stress stimulates growth and strength.
In my opinion, the biggest problem facing America is that we have unhealthy amounts of stress being pumped at us through the media and on the internet. The horrors, the dangers, the angry rants and the dire warnings are magnified and hyped to create a sense of fear and unease not only about the world, but about one another.
Negative Stress and It’s Impact on the Brain
We absorb it while we sit on chairs and slouch through our day, from the bed to the car, to the desk, to the couch, and back into bed. This kind of negative stress, coupled with a sedentary lifestyle, does the opposite of growing the brain. It actually shrinks your brain and causes it to withdraw those leaves and branches, just like how a tree drops it’s leaves and goes into survival mode during winter.
In short, we become physically and mentally weaker, which opens the floodgates to not just physical ailments and disease, but symptoms of anxiety, depression, ADHD, dementia, etc. These illnesses cause us to turn to medications.
Sometimes we need more medications to counteract the side effects of our initial medications. We end up taking a bunch of pills and wonder when we are supposed to “be happy.” But if we don’t change our lives, we will never truly get better. It is high-time doctors prescribe exercise first, or in conjunction with, medication.
We must also start treating exercise as being necessary and vital to human beings’ mental health, instead of a superficial hobby people do on their own time to look good. The American attitude towards fitness starts with cutting recess for kids, to make room for more hours sitting and more stressful testing.
Once you become an adult, you typically have a full-time seated job with few breaks and exercise becomes set as something you have to wedge in, instead of an inherent part of your life. No wonder we are all messed up. Imagine a world with healthier, smarter, and less-depressed people who aren’t overtaxing our healthcare system with an overwhelming need for prescription medications. (Hint: It looks like your local gym.)
How Much Exercise Do You Need?
What is the right dosage for exercise? Most of the studies are based off of vigorous aerobic exercise using 60%-85% of the subject’s maximum heart rate, for 35-45 minute sessions. But there are more experiments being done on complex movements (sports, martial arts) and resistance training (weight lifting, strength training) with promising results in favor of activity.
There is simply not enough evidence to say this exact exercise for a given amount of time at a given amount of intensity will produce a specific amount of growth factor and make your anxiety and depression go away. But there is enough evidence to say finding something you like to do – whether it be running, lifting, swimming, MMA, soccer, cross-training or dancing – and doing it for 3 to 5 times a week can save your body from disease and your mind from itself.
I know this to be true; I’m living proof.
“WHO | Depression.” World Health Organization. N.p., n.d. Web. 3 Mar. 2016.
“Effects of Exercise Training on Older Patients with Major Depression. – PubMed – NCBI.” National Center for Biotechnology Information. N.p., n.d. Web. 3 Mar. 2016.
“Exercise Interventions for Mental Health: A Quantitative and Qualitative Review – Stathopoulou – 2006 – Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice.” Wiley Online Library. N.p., n.d. Web. 3 Mar. 2016.
“Exercise As an Augmentation Treatment for Nonremitted Major Depressive Disorder: a Randomized, Parallel Dose Comparison. – PubMed – NCBI.” National Center for Biotechnology Information. N.p., n.d. Web. 3 Mar. 2016.