Where the Science of Psychology Meets the Art of Being Human

Fighting Depression: This Causes the Same Changes in the Brain as Antidepressants

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When depression latches on, it settles in and rearranges you to get a better grip. You stop loving the things you loved. You stop looking forward to anything. You feel hopeless and you feel sad.

In the Western world, 1 in 10 people will suffer depression during the course of their life. It has more of an effect on physical health than diabetes or arthritis.

Traditionally, antidepressants have been a treatment of choice for depression but in the largest evidence based study ever, researchers have found that sport and physical activity trigger changes in the brain that could only otherwise be achieved through antidepressants.

At the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, researchers from the University of Bern in Switzerland reported, ‘Studies comparing exercise with medication as a treatment for depression showed that the efficiency of antidepressant medication is comparable to the effects of elevated physical activity.’

An abundance of research has shown that sport and physical activity have a positive effect on depression but now we are closer to knowing why.

Exercise causes the same changes in the brain as antidepressants by:

  • influencing the brain’s capacity to absorb serotonin (a chemical in the brain thought to be responsible for, among other things, mood regulation);
  • reducing the activity of the stress hormones;
  • stimulating the growth of new cells in the brain;
  • preventing the death of nerve cells in the hippocampus which is otherwise caused by depression.

By its very nature, depression stifles the desire to be active. The more depressed a person is, the less likely he or she will feel like doing anything. However, there is overwhelming evidence that doing some sort of physical activity has the capacity to turn depression around.

As for how long or how often to exercise, the literature draws a very broad brush, but try for at least 20 to 30 minutes five times a week. If it can be done outside, even better. Research has found an association between depression and a lack of  Vitamin D (found in sunlight). (For more information see here).

If someone close to you has depression, simply telling them to exercise won’t work. It will be like telling someone with the flu to get excited about lunch. They won’t have it in them. Instead, let them know you’re going for a walk and you want them to come along too. Organise a catch up – a couple of times a week if you can – and do something active together. A 30 minute brisk walk will do. For more information on supporting someone with depression, see here.

The very nature of depression means that hopelessness settles in like a heavy fog and it can be difficult – sometimes it feels impossible – to see a way out. Don’t confuse the symptom of hopelessness for the reality that depression can be treated. It’s a physical illness and it’s treatable. For more severe depression, antidepressants may also be important but even when medication has been prescribed, incorporating exercise into a daily routine will make a difference.. Advances in understanding depression are being made all the time. Don’t be slow to seek help. It’s an illness like any other and sometimes it needs a push in the form of medication to move it along. 

The body and the mind don’thave to agree. They often won’t. If you’re depressed, the last thing you will probably feel like doing is exercising, but pushing through the resistance and doing some form of exercise each day will make a difference.

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