The benefits of exercise on depression
I came across an article in the Independent a little while ago that really hit home with me, and after the recent Mental health day I thought what better topic for this article.
“How are you?” the article started. One of the most asked questions in the English language as a form of pleasantry, however as the article went onto discuss this response is usually a mile away from the truth.
The staggering fact is that the biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK is through suicide….. just think about that, with all the horrible illnesses that now exist, the super viruses, cancers, the number of road accidents, terrorism, everything that could kill us (I mean don’t think about it too long), but we are taking our own lives more than anything else!! In 2017 there were Over 6,000 suicides in the UK, with nearly 75% of those being men..
That’s mental!! (sorry terrible phrasing)
Now this article is not going to attempt to answer why this number is so high or even look at different reasons for depression, this article is simply going to touch on a subject close to my heart. Exercise.
My name is Christopher Barker, I’m an Advanced weight loss practitioner and Personal Trainer based in London. I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease when I was 19 and for the last 10 years as a result I have suffered from varying levels of depression. Where everyone’s depression can stem from different reasons, mine came about as a result of the impact that Crohn’s had on my body.
Depression whilst slowly becoming more acceptable to talk about is still something that many of us (especially men) do not want to talk about (probably why suicide rates are higher for men). It is hard to admit to being depressed, I remember admitting it to my parents the first time a few years ago and actually purely by telling them I felt a slight release of anxiety, as even though I didn’t want to talk about it, knowing that they knew gave me comfort that I wasn’t alone..
So how does Exercise come into this? Well if your anything like me I will do almost anything to avoid taking medicine, I find the side effects that come with so many of the medication I am often prescribed almost outweigh taking the medication themselves. (Disclaimer: now obviously I’m not stupid, if medication is the best option and will definitely help I’m not going to not take it, but there are many instances where for my Crohn’s horrible cortical steroids are prescribed and whilst the drug is effective at reducing a flare up I am quite often left having to then take other drugs as a result of the side effects the steroids caused…. So, if I can avoid taking them I will… if that makes sense… again this is not advice to not take your medicine this is merely me trying to explain my rational)
So why Exercise? For someone who doesn’t like taking medication for his Crohn’s I have managed to stay fairly drug free (apart from occasional bad flare ups) through adherence to a strict diet and exercise protocol. When I was first diagnosed, whilst not eating that clean (and I was at uni so was drinking too much) I was still playing a lot of sport. I started to read up on how to manage Crohn’s disease and whilst the information ten years ago was a little sparse, the general principles were adherence to a strict diet to avoid trigger food and perform exercise to help your body digest and utilise the nutrients better from your food…. For someone who loved sports and hates taking drugs (prescribed ones) this was not a problem and a relief to read.
And so, I found the more I stuck to my diet and kept exercise levels high the better I felt. Even if my stomach wasn’t happy, I still felt better after exercise.
The ability of exercise to make me feel better interested me but it wasn’t till I started personal training and learning more about how the human body worked did I fully understand how exercise is a fantastic tool to fight depression.
So how does Exercise help?
There are many ways that exercise can help with Depression. Now obviously the cause of your depression will play a role, but I will try and touch on as many benefits as possible regardless of the cause of the depression.
I know from experience that one of the reasons many of my clients come to me for help is because they suffer from low self-esteem and have a bad body image. One of the obvious benefits of exercise is weight loss and building muscles and helping to build up your confidence through improving your body image. This actually helps me as well as my Crohn’s usually makes me feel uncomfortable with my body (you know what its like to feel bloated you feel very unsexy) however through getting myself into better shape I am able to maintain some level of confidence even during some of the more uncomfortable moments.
Now the main one for me. Exercise, Digestion and Depression… Exercise can help support healthy digestion and allow your body to better absorb the nutrients from your food, this is particularly useful for someone like me whose bodies natural digestive system is faulty (to say the least).
According to James and Phyllis Balch, in “Prescription for Nutritional Healing,” regular exercise improves digestion and elimination. Through light exercise the body can improve blood flow throughout the body, which includes your digestive system. By Keeping your body moving with regular exercise, you can keep your digestive tract moving, therefore consistent exercise routine can help keep your digestive system constant helping you avoid constipation, in addition to any accompanying gas, bloating and cramps.
The Gastroenterological Society of Australia says cardiovascular exercise strengthens the muscles of the abdomen and stimulates the intestinal muscles to move contents through the digestive system. Exercise such as riding a bike can help to reduce heartburn. Light exercise that increases breathing and heart rate can help to produce more efficient bowel movements.
Now I will just throw caution with this advice as eating too close to exercise is a recipe for stomach problems, also intensity of exercise will play a part in how positive the effect of exercise is on your digestive system, too much running or jumping can negatively impact your digestive system. What I tend to do is slow steady state cardio on days when I feel my body needs more help digesting foods, I also Ideally, eat about three hours before I exercise.
Now this may not seem like a point to do with depression but since a lot of my depression is linked to how badly my body is feeling because of my Crohn’s it makes sense that if I can improve my digestive system and limit the negative side effects of my Crohns I will be happier. Promise me this is one of the main reasons I do cardio almost every day.
Another benefit and one everyone has probably heard someone quoting is those amazing things called Endorphins, the ‘feel good’ chemicals our body releases during exercise. David Muzina, MD (founding director of the Cleveland Clinic Centre for Mood Disorders Treatment and Research), explains “Endorphins are our body’s natural morphine and, when released by special glands in our brains, they can produce a sense of well-being or joy and also decrease pain levels.” This release of Endorphins has a direct effect on our mental health and can improve our state of mind.
Exercise can help release hormones in the brain that many people who suffer from depression have low levels of. I personally saw a therapist a few years ago on the advice of my parents after telling them of my depression. What I found interesting was the therapist told me it made sense that I had gone into a very physical job as I was essentially self-medicating with endorphins to make up for my reduced serotonin levels (that my Crohns had caused).
Now doesn’t it sound better to improve your health and hopefully mental health through exercise rather than just relying on anti-depressant drugs… easy choice for me. Exercise can also cause changes in the brain, including neural growth, reduced inflammation, and new activity patterns that promote feelings of calm and well-being without any side effects… can’t say that for your anti-depressants.
Another simple benefit of exercise on depression is simply it can help distract your mind. If you can get away from the cycle of negative thoughts that fuel your depression you can really help your state of mind. Many people like to go for a run to help clear their mind and this can really help alleviate symptoms of depression (for me I need to make sure I have a good playlist ready but I do find running very good at just relaxing my brain).
If you are running outside, it is quite possible (even in sunny England) that you are increasing your serotonin levels as sunshine can increase natural serotonin levels in the body. SAD or seasonal affective disorder is worse during the colder darker months of the year as natural serotonin levels drop. That is not to say you must go for a run to do this but why not get the benefits of exercise and being outside… just a thought.
Sleep as most people will know can directly affect our mood… or should I say lack of sleep will definitely affect our mood, there are many reasons for this but without going into it, it is fair to say that people who exercise regularly on average tend to sleep a lot better than those who don’t, (I probably train too much but when my head hits the pillow I pass out).
Regular exercise has other psychological and emotional benefits too, it may give you the chance to meet or socialize with others (through meeting at the gym, in classes or playing team sports). Socialising for the right person can help distract the mind and further enhance your mood (although speaking from experience this is not the case for everyone, some of us want to talk as little as possible at the gym)
Different types of exercise can help different people when tackling their depression, as previously mentioned there are those people who like to run to clear their mind, there are others who like to box or do some form of martial arts. My personal experience, nothing says stress release like punching the sh*t out of a bag for 30-45 minutes. For others yoga is a great way to help relax the body and mind. In a study of 65 women with depression and anxiety, the 34 women who took a yoga class twice a week for 2 months showed a significant decrease in depression and anxiety, compared to the 31 women who did not take the classes. Norman E. Rosenthal, MD, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the Georgetown University School of Medicine in Washington, D.C, explained “Eastern traditions such as yoga have a wonderful antidepressant effect in that they improve flexibility; involve mindfulness, which breaks up repetitive negative thoughts; increase strength; make you aware of your breathing; improve balance; and contain a meditative component,”.
It is also fair to say that the mind and body are closely linked. A stressed body with tight muscles will most likely have a mind that is also stressed. Physical activity can help relax and relieve tension in the body and by doing so clear the mind of the stress as well.
I understand that people with severe depression can end up with physical symptoms where even getting out of bed seems impossible. I’m not suggesting that exercise is the cure and the be all and end all. This article is to just help touch on my experience of exercise and depression and hopefully reach some people who are depressed or suffer from Crohn’s and give them hope.
I exercise for many reasons, from helping to build up my confidence, to helping me digest food and obviously try and release as many endorphins as humanly possible… Whatever reason you need to start to exercise I couldn’t recommend getting up and just being more active more in your life, even if you don’t suffer from depression. I hope you enjoyed the read.