1 in 5 people in the United States live with some form of mental illness and in the UK, it’s around 1 in 4. Help is available and awareness is growing, but there’s no quick fix and having mental health problems can be both a challenging and frustrating experience.
I don’t suffer from depression but I do know that exercise is key in helping me manage my own mental health; it helps me to deal with struggles that are common to the human experience. Exercise is a good way of keeping your head straight. Many of us already understand that. Many people with depression understand that, too, but depression often robs people of their energy, their motivation, their ability or desire to leave the house, to take a shower or to put one foot in front of the other. Prescribing a walk around the block or a light jog when someone is at their lowest ebb isn’t practical or helpful and (no matter how well-meant) is somewhat insensitive.
Exercise won’t cure depression. This post certainly isn’t suggesting that, but it’s exciting to see research that solidifies the link between moderate aerobic exercise and alleviated symptoms of clinical depression. In the past, this connection has seemed anecdotal and a little broscience-ish but this is a promising start: we might now better understand the impact physical exertion has on mental illness.
On October 18th 2018, a ‘systematic review of randomized clinical trials’ was published in Depression and Anxiety journal suggesting that aerobic exercise could have an ‘anti-depressant’ effect for people suffering from clinical depression.
The study highlighted 11 trials and 455 patients between the ages of 18 and 65 with diagnosed clinical depression. The study looked at trials where the results of medicated or in-therapy patients were compared to those unmedicated patients following an exercise routine. It found what some are calling a ‘concrete link’ between aerobic exercise and a reduction to the symptoms of clinical depression. Over a nine-week period, patients exercising for 45 minutes 3 times a week were found to have benefitted from a greater ‘anti-depressant’ effect than those who used more traditional treatment routes without exercise. Whilst exercise isn’t a cure and shouldn’t be presented as one, nevertheless, the impact of this could be huge: those suffering from depression could have a way of managing their symptoms whilst being treated.
Why Does Exercise Make Us Feel Better?
Earlier in the year we wrote about the impact of exercise on mental health and included the results of a study reported by CNN: how exercise increases the body’s production of two neurotransmitters: serotonin and norepinephrine which are feel-good chemicals that work with dopamine to regulate mood. The runners high? It’s not bullshit.
According to the Harvard Science Review, exercise can have an impact on those suffering from depression that goes beyond the release of chemicals at the moment of exercise. It points, too, not to the super-intense high-impact sports that we might expect, but to low-impact and gentle exercise as a good long-term strategy to combat the symptoms of depression. Low-intensity exercise done regularly releases neurotrophic proteins which help nerve cells grow and make new connections. The article goes on to say that this improvement in brain function will make you feel better.
"In people who are depressed, neuroscientists have noticed that the hippocampus in the brain—the region that helps regulate mood—is smaller. Exercise supports nerve cell growth in the hippocampus, improving nerve cell connections, which helps relieve depression," says Dr. Michael Craig Miller, assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
The website of the Sun newspaper recently published a story suggesting that exercise can help with other mental disorders, too. A policewoman manages her symptoms of PTSD by participating in challenging obstacle trials by running up to 30 miles each race. An article on the iol website also talks about new guidelines from the European Psychiatric Association (EPA) suggesting that 150 minutes each week of moderate aerobic exercise can help to relieve the symptoms not just of depression but Schizophrenia, too. They quote the lead researcher, Brendon Stubbs, from King’s College London:
"Our comprehensive review provides clear evidence that physical activity has a central role in reducing the burden of mental health symptoms in people with depression and schizophrenia. Our guidelines provide direction for future clinical practice,".
What’s great about exercise (and what’s been confirmed by the Harvard study) is that you don’t need to be super fit to get its mental health-boosting benefits. A brisk walk is classed as aerobic exercise as is swimming, cycling and dancing. 150 minutes of exercise each week is the magic number we’ve seen banded around and whilst it can see a little arbitrary, it’s certainly not a bad place to start. If you enjoy more vigorous exercise then you can halve it down to 75 minutes each week.
The body and the brain are connected. It makes sense that when something is wrong with the one that symptomatic relief may be found in the other. Exercise might not be able to cure depression but by helping to manage the symptoms, we can expect to see an improvement in the quality of life of those suffering from it.
If You Need to Ask for Help
If you’re struggling with your mental health, there are plenty of people and organisations ready to listen and help. In the UK, we’d encourage you to contact your GP or to get in touch with any of the organisations listed on the Mental Health website. In the United States, you can find help on the Mental Health America website.
Exercise is so important for maintaining a healthy lifestyle and so for every pair of Ear Hugs sold, £1 is donated to the Mental Health Foundation which does incredible work in helping to combat depression and mental illness. Ear Hugs are sweat-proof headphone covers that protect the cushions of your headphones from moisture damage during exercise.