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November 25, 2013 at 2:12 PMComments: 0 Faves: 0

New Study Shows Exercise May Prevent Depression - Here's How

By Jeffrey VanWingen M.D. More Blogs by This Author

As a primary care doctor, the best thing I can do for people is to help them prevent illness in the first place. Ben Franklin had it right when he said that "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!" Good diet, regular exercise, and proper hygiene are all important when it comes to preventing cold, flu, and even much more serious diseases like diabetes. But what about mental health conditions? With one out of every ten adults currently suffering from clinical depression, the disorder affects more people than diabetes, cancer, OR heart disease.

New Findings on Exercise

An article published this month in The American Journal of Preventive Medicine examined data from a number of studies looking at exercise in the prevention of clinical depression. Researchers found a consistent link between regular exercise and decreased rates of depression. How much? No optimal amount of exercise was gleaned from the study, but the general trend was "the more the better."

From a physiological perspective, this makes sense because exercise boosts stores of neurohormones important in maintaining mood, energy, focus, and motivation. Norepinephrine prevents mental fatigue and lack of enthusiasm that can lead to depression. Exercise also yields better sleep which, in turn, prevents depression.

From a psychological perspective, this makes sense because exercise yields a sense of accomplishment - an important factor to overall happiness. And then there's often a social aspect to exercise, as with aerobics classes or visiting a gym, and this adds even more benefit with a sense of belonging.

Other Factors in Depression 

Some people are lucky to have better circumstances than others. I have found consistently, however, that wealth, security, and intelligence don't necessarily correlate with clinical depression. If anything, I've seen more depression in the affluent populations I serve than in the slums of India I frequent, where poverty is the rule. Mostly, behaviors that preserve mood and outlook are common-sense. 

  • Sleep: A good night's rest is of paramount importance. Chronically poor sleep can turn a rational, functioning person into an emotional mess. Without relief, neurohormones decline and depression ensues. 
  • Positive, nurturing relationships: Meaningful interpersonal relationships help prevent depression. In contrast, abusive or tumultuous relations are a burden to the body, with chronic stress potentially leading to neurohormone depletion. 
  • Reflection: Taking the time to reflect gets us back on line emotionally and can improve insight. This may come in the form of prayer, meditation, or just time spent with your thoughts in introspection. 

In counseling depressed patients, a therapist's best technique is known as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT, which has been proven to benefit those with depression, relies on tapping into insight and reasoning. I believe this can also happen during times of personal reflection in a rational state - armor against depression.

Depression can be a multi-faceted illness with genetic, physiologic, and social factors. While it is treatable, it is also preventable to some extent. To prevent depression, examine your exercise and sleep habits. Nurture and tap into positive relationships, and make sure you are getting regular time to reflect.

Your mental health is no less important than your physical well being! Take care and know there's no weakness in seeking help for either.

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