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The antidepressant effects of exercise

Often called the “common cold” of mental illness, depression is a highly prevalent phenomenon that crosses borders, race, gender, age and socio-economic status. It’s no different on our own shores, and according to statistics released by the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG), roughly one in six South Africans suffer from anxiety, depression or substance abuse problems.

While scientists are always studying the effects and treatment regimes aimed at combatting depression, one method has again come into the spotlight: exercise.

As effective as medication

In 1999, Dr James A. Blumenthal and his colleagues demonstrated that regular exercise might be as effective as antidepressant medication in treating major depression. After studying 156 older adults who had been diagnosed with major depression and assigned either the antidepressant medication Zoloft, 30 minutes of exercise three times a week, or both, Dr Blumenthal’s study concluded that “a modest exercise program is an effective, robust treatment for patients with major depression who are positively inclined to participate in it. The benefits of exercise are likely to endure particularly among those who adopt it as a regular, ongoing life activity.”

Since that first study, a number of others have followed, and in 2010, exercise was included in the American Psychiatric Association Practice Guideline for the Treatment of Patients with Major Depressive Disorder. In 2014, a systemic review that considered 22 studies of exercise as an add-on strategy for major depressive disorder found that there was evidence that exercise was effective in combination with antidepressants.

A more recent study, featured in the journal JAMA Psychiatry, suggests that weight-training may have mental health benefits, whilst another recent study published in The Lancet found that exercise leads to “fewer days of poor mental health”.

Ditch the pills and go for a run?

The key element in Blumethal’s first study in 1999 was that the patients involved were already highly motivated to start exercising, and were called by researchers to check on their progress. Furthermore, an incorporated belief that they were dedicated and worked hard at their exercise programme gave them a sense of that they had real input in beating their depression.

In real life, such motivation isn’t always a part of a patient with major depression’s mindset, and precious few people have someone that constantly checks in on their progress.

Still, the plethora of studies about this subject has made exercise one of the first recommendations for depressed patients in the UK, Canada and Australia.

If you do suffer from depression or anxiety, it certainly won’t hurt to give it a shot in conjunction with your current treatment regime. Researchers in the study featured in The Lancet found that team sports may be more mood-elevating than other forms of exercise, but even just going for a walk with a friend could reap benefits that you didn’t know were on the table.

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