Sunday, 9 January 2011

New Year post by friend & colleage Maggie Ayre

Are The Post-Christmas Blues Getting You Down?

How Exercise Can Lift Your Mood and Leave You Full of the Joys of Spring

Most people who are depressed don’t even know it. They have lived with being “slightly unhappy” for so long that they’re used to it. However, studies have consistently shown that when these slightly miserable people start to exercise they become less critical of themselves and others and they become less of a grouch. They discover that other people want to spend more time with them and they feel more passionate about life – in short they discover that they can be happier! And all because of a little bit of exercise…..

So, you’re probably wondering how this works, couldn’t we all do with feeling a little bit happier this time of year?

There are many different types of depression all of which display different symptoms; from those who don’t eat and can’t sleep, to those who eat too much and are permanently tired. Some people find it impossible to make even the simplest decision and others withdraw from the world. Others still will shout and challenge everything and everyone.

Back in the 1950s we discovered that there was a biological explanation for depression, a disease that had previously been thought of as purely psychological. We still don’t know what causes depression but in the 1970s a hospital in Norway discovered that aerobic exercise can be used to effectively treat depression.

Since then there have been numerous theories as to why this works. Some sports men and women talk about a “runners high” and a feeling of euphoria when they exercise but this doesn’t happen to everyone. Instead it has been discovered that when exercise triggers endorphins actually in the brain they can produce a general feeling of “well-being” that accompanies exercise. This seems to be more universal.

Exercise is more powerful than that though it also targets all the same neurotransmitters as antidepressants.

•It elevates levels of norepinephrine which improves self-esteem.

•It boosts dopamine which improves mood and feelings of wellness and jump starts the attention system.

•It raises levels of serotonin which improves mood, self-esteem and regulates impulses.

•It counteracts cortisol helping to stave off stress.

In fact a 1999 study at Duke University in the US discovered that exercise was actually more effective than the antidepressants over the long term and that those who were treating depression with exercise were far less likely to suffer relapse. They discovered that 50 minutes of weekly exercise correlated with a 50% drop in the odds of being depressed. Blumenthal, who conducted the experiments on 156 patients decided that the results couldn’t conclusively prove that exercise caused remission but does it really matter whether you’re less depressed because you exercise or exercise because you’re less depressed? Either way you feel better.

Now of course being a little bit sad isn’t the same as being clinically depressed but it has been shown that exercise can help depression however mildly or severely it is experienced. Just because you don’t have all the symptoms of depression doesn’t mean that exercise can’t be used to make you feel even better – imagine feeling “better than well”!

Exercise has also proven to be highly effective at preventing depression. One of the first symptoms of depression is sleep disturbance- either an inability to sleep or an inability to get up. The key is to start exercising at this point.

So if you’re feeling run down, under the weather, and unable to sleep or get up in the morning exercise could be just the cure you need.

** Most of the statistics for this post come from the fantastic book “Spark! How Exercise will Improve the Performance of Your Brain” by Dr John J Ratey and Eric Hagerman, which I highly recommend.

To read more about Maggie and her great work with teenage girls see:

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