Depression & Exercise
Depression is a disease that nearly 1 in 5 Americans have, and it costs us $30 billion a year. It is the leading cause of disability in the United States, ranking ahead of cancer, stroke and coronary heart disease. And while it’s hard to know exactly how many people try to commit suicide, we know that in America someone successfully takes their own life every 17 minutes.
Depression is a major problem. Thankfully, exercise can be a key part of the solution.
Depression is a disease for which there is no blood test. It comes in many forms, making it so some people can’t get out of bed, can’t eat or sleep, or use food, alcohol and medication as coping mechanisms. Many people with depression are often inactive, feel hopeless and have little to no motivation.
The stigmas surrounding depression often keep many suffering in quiet and shame. Despite immense struggles, they mask their disease so well that their own family members, friends and coworkers don’t know they have it.
The good news is that whether you are simply just stressed out, have a mild case of depression or you have been diagnosed as clinically depressed, exercise can help with any mood disorder. That’s because exercise unleashes a cascade of neurotransmitters and other important chemicals in the brain and body that can help reduce or even eliminate depression. .
We have known since 1965 that depression is caused by a deficit of three important chemicals in the brain: norepinephrine, dopamine and serotonin. These are powerful and important chemicals we need to function every day, and exercise helps produce all three in the brain at the right quantity.
So how does it work? Exercise activates a section of the brain known as the locus coeruleus, which is the main producer of norepinephrine in the brain. This chemical is vitally important because it wakes up the brain and keeps it running smoothly, in addition to increasing self esteem.
Exercise also increases the secretion of a second very important chemical called dopamine. Dopamine not only enhances mood, it increases feelings of wellbeing and jump starts motivation. Just starting something, or getting moving at all, is a big challenge to someone who is depressed. But with exercise, you make more dopamine, which helps break the vicious cycle of lower dopamine due to inactivity.
Research has even shown that prolonged exercise helps increase dopamine storage and can make more enzymes that need dopamine to work specifically in the reward center of the brain. This reward center, known as the nucleus acumens, triggers feelings of satisfaction when we accomplish something. With extra dopamine produced through exercise this process is stabilized, something that also helps reduce addictions to food, alcohol and medications.
Exercise also increases the production of serotonin in the brain and body. Serotonin is a crucial chemical when it comes to the brain communication. It helps relay messages from one area of the brain to another and keeps your brain activity under control. In addition to sending messages throughout your brain, serotonin is also vital for mood, impulse control, and self-esteem.Beyond the production of chemicals, there are numerous researchers who believe that depression can shrink many parts of the brain, including the frontal cortex and the hippocampus. That shrinkage starts to erode connections between brain cells, making it more difficult for the brain to function. But exercise can reverse that shrinkage.
In addition to helping produce important chemicals, exercise also helps reduce stress by counteracting cortisol and primes the cellular connections in the cortex and hippocampus that are important for learning. In short, exercise is the ultimate antidepressant pill. And it comes with no negative side effects.
Back in the 1970s, hospitals in Norway and the United Kingdom offered patients suffering with depression the option of treatment with antidepressants or daily exercise. Today, more and more doctors are aware that exercise has direct effect on mood disorders and can help their patient with depression, anxiety and countless other mental health issues.
Someday soon, I expect the scientific and medical community to make exercise a critical treatment for depression, anxiety and other mood disorders. I only wish it could have happened 15 years ago.
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