Lifestyle - July 3, 2023

New groundbreaking research released by Harvard University reveals that the most effective medicine for depression may not be a pill but something surprisingly simple, free, and accessible to all.

Everybody can agree that depression is one if not the biggest threats to our mental health these days and that it can lead to a long chain of other diseases and even death. 

The Silent Epidemic of Depression

That’s why so many scientists devote countless hours, resources, and efforts to the topic of depression, from the causes to how to handle symptoms to the cure. 

This is all a very long and expensive journey. However, those efforts are paying off because new research has shown there’s hope, and it’s simpler and cheaper than ever thought before. 

But before we get to what those findings are and how they positively affect depression treatment and prevention, it’s crucial to understand a few of its causes, especially those related to our modern way of life. 

The Modern Life and its Tolls

In the fast-paced, hyper-connected world of the 21st century, rising rates of depression can be partly attributed to the changes in how we live and work. High-stress jobs constantly demand top performance, and how we communicate, and form relationships has evolved.

Additionally, the pressure to appear perfect on social media and the comparisons we constantly make with others’ lives can contribute to anxiety and depression. The over-reliance on technology, sometimes very practical, can be associated with psychological distress.

And another factor that comes in associated with all those aspects of the modern way of life is a sedentary lifestyle.

Scientists have long known these associations, so they decided to investigate the effects of physical exercise on people diagnosed with depression in a meta-analysis combining over 100 studies with more than 150,000 people.

The results are remarkable. Harvard University, Medical News Today, The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, and The Washington Post, to name a few, have all released articles talking about this study.

So, what research is this, you might be wondering.

A Groundbreaking Discovery

The study is published in BJM Sports Medicine. It states that Physical activity is 1.5 times more effective at reducing mild-to-moderate symptoms of depression, psychological stress, and anxiety than medication or cognitive behavior therapy, according to the study’s lead author, Dr. Ben Singh.

The findings are outstanding. One might think you have to become a gym rat or spend hours and hours exercising when, in fact, it’s the other way around.

Researchers found that exercising as little as 150 minutes a week, less than 22 minutes a day, produced a median reduction in mental health issues from 42% to 60%, almost double of psychotherapy and pharmacotherapy, which made smaller improvements of 22% to 37%. 

Although the research didn’t focus on any age group specifically, it shows the benefits of exercising over depression are the same for anybody over 18. 

However, there’s one group where it’s particularly shown: people over 45 years old who are physically unconditioned (sedentary). It shows that brief 20-40 min walks – The cheapest and easiest exercise – “was particularly effective for improving depression and anxiety,” said Dr. Singh.

The Science Behind The Sweat

So why does it happen, and what does it matter to us in our lives?

Well, a growing body of research supports the idea of the benefits of exercising coming from its impact on the production and regulation of hormones. 

But how does exercise actually combat depression? It all comes down to biology,

“through physiological and biochemical mechanisms, including endorphins, mitochondria, mammalian target of rapamycinTrusted Source, neurotransmitters, and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, and via the thermogenic hypothesis.” according to Victoria University’s Professor Vasso Apostolopoulos.

Prof. Apostolopoulos also points out that exercise reduces inflammation “via several different processes (inflammation, cytokinesTrusted Source, toll-like receptors, adipose tissue and via the vagal tone), which can contribute to better health outcomes in people suffering from mood disorders.“

And what matters to us is, at some level, we’re all suffering the same social pressures that lead to feelings of depression milder or more severe. We’re all under attack.

Integrating Exercise into Depression Treatment

For the scientists that found this new data, exercise should be used as a PRIMARY treatment for depression along with Psychotherapy and Pharmacotherapy.

It’s important to note that exercise is not a one-size-fits-all remedy and should not replace medication without consulting a healthcare professional.

And although other scientists prefer the traditional ways of treating it, they also recognize the importance of exercise in improving mental health, especially its relations with hormones that regulate people’s feelings of well-being, anxiety, and mental distress.

The bottom line is if you’re feeling anxious, sad, overwhelmed, or anything briefly related to depression. If you don’t want to get out of bed, don’t feel like working, and don’t see meaning in your everyday activities. You can start helping yourself with a simple walk.

Looking for an exercise routine that’s easy to implement and follow will be more effective than any other thing you can do by yourself to uplift your mood and attack back against the negative stimulus the modern living environment keeps pushing on us.

It’s not a matter of going for a brief walk to clear up your mind; that’s the superficial impression. The real effects are way deeper to biological, hormonal, and biochemical levels.

Dr. Singh and Prof. Apostolopoulos point out the same way, psychiatrists and psychologists whose expertise is in mental health should partner with health professionals with physical activity experience to prescribe integrated treatments.

“A treatment plan may include a combination of lifestyle approaches, such as exercising regularly, eating a balanced diet, and socializing, alongside treatments such as psychotherapy and medication.”

— Dr. Ben Singh

Taking The First Step

So, if you or someone close to you is feeling a little off, don’t let it grow and take over your life, look for help. Also, go for a walk or try a Yoga class; there are so many options.

In conclusion, don’t underestimate the power of physical activity in fighting depression. Combining exercise with traditional therapies can be a game-changer. Consult with healthcare professionals to integrate physical activity into your mental health strategy. Take the first step today.

 text credit: Rodrigo Amado References: Medical News Today, Harvard University Heath , BMJ Sports Medicine, The Guardian, The Washington Post


Photo credits: photomontage: Vinícius Pascoal

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