Physical activity has been universally recognised for decades as a method to improve physical health, trim the waistline, boost sex drive, and add years to our lives. But working up a sweat also works wonders for our grey matter. Somewhat confusingly, it actually makes us feel more energetic throughout the day, it improves our sleep and our memory, but most importantly, it allows us to feel more relaxed and positive about ourselves.
Forget the 2012 NHS funded study that tried to tell us exercise is not an effective treatment for depression, because getting sweaty CAN be used as a means of managing the condition and keeping it at bay. Research conducted by Duke University Medical Center in North Carolina randomised men and women over the age of 50 with major depression into two groups: one who did an aerobic exercise program for four months and another that took an antidepressant drug called Zoloft. Before exercise, their Hamilton Depression scores were up around 18 (with anything over seven considered depressed).
Within four months, the drug group came down to normal, which is exactly what is supposed to happen. But more importantly, what about the exercise-only group? The same powerful effect could be found. So powerful that the researchers themselves concluded a well-tailored exercise program may be considered as an alternative to antidepressants for treatment of depression.
A former interviewee of mine, Tom Carr, 25, from Bedford, would go along with this sort of thinking, too. After being talked down from the top of a multi-storey car park in 2013, Tom was diagnosed with depression and anxiety. Despite taking prescribed medication, he continued to struggle with the condition for eight years. But Tom showed incredible strength by opting to return to his childhood sport of football three years ago. Yes, he has still has his bad days, but overall, he lauds the effect of sport on his ability to cope with depression.
“The depression makes me feel like I’ve let everyone down and become a burden. During these episodes, I have little to no energy and the anxiety just makes me feel like I can’t go outside, in fear of what may happen,” Tom told me. “Football makes me feel like I am a part of something and it keeps my mind occupied. The best part is being a member of a team, I enjoy the camaraderie that sport brings.”
So if exercise has the potential to significantly combat depressive symptoms, what happens if 20 million Brits are currently physically inactive? Last week’s report from the British Heart Foundation let that cat out of the bag. It found that the average man in the UK spends a fifth of his lifetime sitting – equivalent to 78 days a year, while the average women spends around 74 days a year resting on her behind.
Inactivity, defined as failing to achieve government guidelines of 150 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity a week, is said to cost the NHS approximately £1.2bn per year and according to the BHF, it is the leading cause of coronary heart disease.
But what if I told you that just as regular exercise can help to manage symptoms, a lack of it may directly correspond with a greater number of cases of depression?
Thanks to the BHF, we know that more people are physically inactive than ever before, so is it any wonder that depression is also on the rise? One in four people in the UK are experiencing mental health issues each year, according to the NHS. Google trends also revealed last year that the number of online searches for depression increased by 18 percent in 2016, compared to 2015, with an astonishing 96 percent increase over the period of the last 5 years. In my mind, this all seems like too much of a coincidence.
Research conducted in February 2017 by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and NTNU Social Research seems to support this idea too. For their study, researchers followed the lives of 700 children from six years old and then conducted follow-up examinations at eight and ten years old, to see if they could find a correlation between physical activity and symptoms of depression. It found that children experience the same beneficial effects as adults from being active and of the 700 children tested, physically active six-year-olds and eight-year-olds showed fewer symptoms of depression when examined.
Tonje Zahl, a PhD candidate at NTNU and the first author of the article on the study’s findings said, “Being active, getting sweaty and roughhousing offer more than just physical health benefits. They also protect against depression.” Silje Steinsbekk, associate professor in NTNU’s Department of Psychology added, “This is important to know, because it may suggest that physical activity can be used to prevent and treat depression already in childhood.”
This notion was also supported in a study conducted by researchers from Victoria University and the University of Queensland in 2013. Published in the American Journal of Medicine, the experiment was based on 8,950 women aged between 50 and 55, who answered surveys in 2001, 2004, 2007 and 2010.
Researchers took note of their depressive symptoms and physical activity levels, and also grouped them based on how much time they spent sitting each day. The study found that women who sat for more than seven hours a day were at a 47 percent higher risk for depressive symptoms, compared with women who sat for four or fewer hours a day. And women who didn’t do any exercise had a 99 percent higher risk for depressive symptoms, compared with those who exercised according to physical activity guidelines.
Of course, the study merely identifies an association without managing to determine whether depression leads to inactivity, or if sitting for too long actually makes us depressed. But however unfounded the claims may be, all evidence up until now seems to point towards the latter.
Dr J. Kip Matthews, PhD, an American sports psychologist certainly thinks so. “Exercise thwarts depression and anxiety by enhancing the body’s ability to respond to stress. The more sedentary we become, the less efficient we are in dealing with stress,” he says.
And here we have it, the crux of my argument. Not only is Dr Matthews saying that exercise can be used to manage the symptoms associated with depression, but that a sedentary lifestyle reduces our ability to deal with the modern day strains of life, making us more anxious and dare I say it, depressed.
When you think about it, this is very logical. It is a matter of fact that more of us sit around on our bums all day than our ancestors ever did. Without getting that heart pumping regularly enough, we miss out on all the benefits of exercise. In light of this, I am not surprised by the worsening state of mental health in Britain. After all, with longer working hours, the worrying state of politics both at home and abroad and frequent terror attacks broadcast on the news virtually every day, we need a respite.
I am not trying to say that exercise is some miracle cure for depression, nor am I trying to insinuate that working out everyday will give you some placard of immunity from mental health issues. So far nothing does and I am almost certain that nothing ever will. But it is imperative that we grasp what a few hours of activity can do for physical but also mental wellbeing.