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Exercise Your Way to Better Mental Health
Everyone knows that exercise is good for you. It can help you keep your weight down, which in turn helps you reduce your risk of heart disease and other health problems. It can help keep your joints healthy as you age, and it can fight bone loss in older women.
But exercise may be good for your mental health as well. In fact, some studies suggest that it may even help to combat depression.
A study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine followed 80 people with mild to moderate depression. They were divided into five groups; four groups did varying amounts of aerobic exercise, while the fifth group did only gentle stretching. At the end of the study, the group that had exercised a minimum of 30 minutes five days a week showed a marked reduction in its level of depression. In fact, after 12 weeks, their scores on the Hamilton Rating Scale for Depression had declined by an average of 47 percent. Participants in the group that did a lesser amount of exercise saw a much smaller reduction in their scores.
That amount of exercise – 30 minutes at least five days a week – is also the amount recommended by the federal government under its new nutritional guidelines.
The scientists who conducted the study concluded that, "Aerobic exercise at a dose consistent with public health recommendations is an effective treatment for (major depressive disorder)."
The study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine was sponsored by an exercise equipment manufacturer, and it also covered only a very small sample, so it cannot be considered definitive. But its basic conclusion – that exercise can be helpful in dealing with depression – has been mirrored by other studies as well. In fact, a similar study conducted in Berlin and published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found similar results.
As early as 1996, the Surgeon General’s Report on Physical Activity and Health found that "physical activity appears to relieve symptoms of depression and anxiety and improve mood" and that "regular physical activity may reduce the risk of developing depression, although further research is needed on this topic."
Of course, people who are suffering from depression, which often involves a lack of energy and motivation, can have a hard time getting started on and sticking with an exercise program. But if you are being treated for depression, you might talk to your doctor about whether exercise might help you.
Exercise can be good for the mental health of virtually everyone, whether they experience depression or not. People who exercise regularly tend to have higher self-esteem, a more positive outlook and more energy. Part of the reason for that might be the release of endorphins, a natural chemical that can result in a feeling of euphoria, often referred to as the "runner’s high."
In addition, regular exercise can provide a greater sense of control: If you can stick with an exercise program, perhaps you can also make other positive changes in your life. It also can function as a distraction, allowing people to get away from their problems for a while. And it can provide a social outlet as well, connecting people with other people who enjoy the same things.