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Friday, October 10, 2014

New Study Elucidates How Exercise Alleviates Depression

Exercise can help-even when you're sad
I’ll never forget the 30-something woman who spoke that Saturday afternoon. Many years ago, I attended a weekend fitness conference and felt frustrated as speaker after speaker droned on with textbook, cookie-cutter information. They lacked inspiration and practical advice, and by Saturday lunch I felt ready to bolt.

Was I glad I didn’t: This dynamic, engaging speaker gave a moving testimonial about how for years she could hardly get off the couch to do anything. Her doctor cycled her through every anti-depressant possible. They all initially seemed effective but soon lost their edge. Acupuncture, nutrient therapy, meditation: You name the complementary therapy and she had tried it to alleviate depression.

“Lifting heavy was my
game changer,” she said, and nearly everyone in the room sat up and took note. “I had a friend who worked out religiously, and she invited – no, cajoled – me to come with her. Of course I resisted at first. Then, one particularly low Saturday night, I had an epiphany, realized I would die if I didn’t do something soon, and finally mustered up the drive to attend.”

Everyone nodded in agreement. As fitness-minded professionals, we knew that an intelligently designed exercise program could alleviate exercise.

Studies Show Exercise Can Alleviate Depression
I want to be absolutely clear. If you suffer from moderate or severe depression, please seek medical and psychological counseling. I don’t want to suggest exercise can become the cure-all for extreme depression. Oftentimes therapy involves a combination of approaches, and I’m not sure hitting the gym a few times each week can provide a complete answer.

At the same time, don’t discount the benefits exercise can create for mood. We have studies that show exercise can improve cognitive performance, enhance memory, reverse depression, decrease age-related mental decline, and even prevent dementia.

But how does exercise create those benefits? “Scientists have also known that exercise seems to cushion against depression. Working out somehow makes people and animals emotionally resilient, studies have shown,” writes Gretchen Reynolds in a fantastic New York Times blog. “But precisely how exercise, a physical activity, can lessen someone’s risk for depression, a mood state, has been mysterious.” 

Past studies offer clues. For instance, vigorous exercise increases a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), increasing hippocampus size and improving memory.
We’re still putting together the pieces of a very complex puzzle, but a cool new study, published in the journal Cell, further elucidates just why exercise provides that anti-depressive boost. Reynolds explains this succinctly but in science-speak (you’re smart; you can handle it) in this fabulous blog.

Now wait, you say, after you read that blog. That’s all well and good for rodents, but we’re not furry mice. Thankfully, researchers reproduced that same experiment with adults who did three weeks of frequent, 40 – 50 minute sessions of moderate cycling or jogging. Sure enough, exercisers got those same anti-depressive benefits that mice showed.

Re-evaluating Depression
I’ve long argued a good workout rivals a counseling session or any other potential mood lifter. A post-exercise booster provides just the ticket for a mid-day slump, fight with your boyfriend, or a I feel fat day. More than one client told me lifting heavy also lifted their spirits, pulling them out of a miserable funk.

I always attributed that feel-good aftermath to an endorphin rush, but honestly, until I read this study, I never really synchronized how exercise could alleviate depression.

“’Depression” is simply a label we give to people who have a depressed mood most of the time, have lost interest or pleasure in most activities, are fatigued, can’t sleep, have no interest in sex, feel hopeless and helpless, can’t think clearly, or can’t make decisions,” says Dr. Mark Hyman. “But that label tells us NOTHING about the cause of those symptoms. In fact, there are dozens of causes of depression — each one needing a different approach to treatment. Depression is not one-size-fits-all, but it is very common.”

According to Hyman, nutrient deficiencies and toxicity are among the root causes of depression, and years of therapy cannot address what could be, say, an omega-3 fatty acid deficiency.

In her book The Anti-anxiety Food Solution, Trudy Scott discusses balancing brain chemistry with amino acids like GABA and tryptophan. “When you balance your brain chemistry,” she writes, “not only will you alleviate symptoms of anxiety, but you’ll also have a great mood, eliminate cravings, sleep well, and have good energy and mental focus.”
Combining nutrient therapy with exercise could provide a powerful strategy to alleviate depression, though many practitioners are more content throwing antidepressants rather than address depression’s underlying causes.

That’s where I think this study can become valuable. I had one fault here: I’m not a fan of endurance exercise, which can become counterproductive and raise your stress hormone cortisol. I’m thrilled we have another pro-exercise study, but why do researchers often use jogging or cycling as their go-to exercise?

Depression and high cortisol levels go hand in hand and feed off each other. One meta-analysis in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology looked at seven studies that examined cortisol levels to various stressors in clinically depressed (MDD) and non-depressed (ND) individuals. Interestingly, MDD patients had much higher cortisol levels during the recovery period than their ND counterparts.

Now, all exercise raises cortisol, but heavy lifting and burst training also raise anabolic hormones like growth hormone (GH) and testosterone. Interestingly, depression is a key symptom of these and other hormonal deficiencies.

Normally those spiked cortisol levels occur about an hour after you exercise. If you’re a frequent runner or cycler (as study participants were), you’ll probably spend at least an hour on the trail or around the lake. If you’re running a marathon or pulling a 10-mile run, you’ll likely be exercising far more than an hour.

On the other hand, I doubt you’ll spend an hour lifting heavy (if you are, you aren’t lifting heavy enough), and you certainly won’t spend an hour burst training.

In other words, not only do weight resistance and burst training help balance cortisol and other hormone levels, they can also help you better recover from and handle stress throughout the day.

Don’t get me wrong. Studies do show weight resistance can benefit brain health. One recent study found just one session of weight resistance could improve memory and mental performance. But I would love to see more studies, especially connecting burst training or weight resistance with alleviating depression.

If you struggle with depression, I challenge you to implement burst training for a few minutes every day. See if that alone doesn’t alleviate your mood. If you want to amp up those benefits, combine burst training with weight resistance. You can do both in under an hour.
Never underestimate the power of an intelligently designed exercise program. I’ve seen it countless times help reduce depression, anxiety, and other mental blocks. That hour (or less) you spend at the gym could significantly impact the rest of your day.

Exercise helps people overcome all sorts of obstacles, from low self-esteem to depression to a better sex life. What hurdle did it help you overcome? Share your thoughts below or on my Facebook fan page.

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Fitness expert and strength coach Jini Cicero, CSCS, teaches intermediate exercisers how to blast through plateaus to create incredible transformations. Are you ready to take your fitness to a whole new level?  Find out now!  Take Jini's "Are you Ready?" Quiz at© 2014 Jinifit, Inc.

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1 comment:

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