Senior Lady Exercising

Why Exercise is the World’s most Potent and Underutilised Antidepressant

How many times have you struggled to actually put on those running shoes and go out for that run? How many times did you rationalise skipping exercise because “you have more important work to do?”? How many times did you come up with an excuse to skip your gym session after work or school because of this or that?

You’re not alone. Especially in the beginning, exercise is more work than fun.

But as you get into shape, you’ll begin to tolerate exercise, then enjoy it, and finally depend on it.

A mountain of studies draw a clear picture: Regular aerobic exercise will bring remarkable, transformational changes to your body, your metabolism, your heart, and your spirits. It has a unique capacity to exhilarate and relax, to provide stimulation and calm, to counter depression and dissipate stress. It’s a common experience among endurance athletes and has been verified in clinical trials that have successfully used exercise to treat anxiety disorders and clinical depression. If athletes and patients can derive psychological benefits from exercise, so can you.

How can exercise contend with problems as difficult as anxiety and depression? There are several explanations, some chemical, others behavioral. Below, we look at a few of the most convincing findings about exercise to date:

The effects of exercise are comparable to actual antidepressants

We want to be clear here, we’re not advocating exercises replaces antidepressants. What we’re pointing towards here is the importance of having both. James Blumenthal, PhD, a clinical psychologist at Duke University, has explored the mood-exercise connection through a series of randomized controlled trials. In one such study, he and his colleagues assigned sedentary adults with major depressive disorder to one of four groups: supervised exercise, home-based exercise, antidepressant therapy or a placebo pill. After four months of treatment, Blumenthal found, patients in the exercise and antidepressant groups had higher rates of remission than did the patients on the placebo. Exercise, he concluded, was generally comparable to antidepressants for patients with major depressive disorder. A year later, Richard found that between participants taking antidepressants but not engaging in activities, versus participants taking antidepressants and also engaging in physical activities, the latter had lower depression scores than did their less active counterparts.

Exercise is pivotal to managing anxiety

Researchers have also explored exercise as a tool for treating — and perhaps preventing — anxiety. When we’re spooked or threatened, our nervous systems jump into action, setting off a cascade of reactions such as sweating, dizziness, and a racing heart. People with heightened sensitivity to anxiety respond to those sensations with fear. They’re also more likely to develop panic disorder down the road. Jasper Smiths and Otto

Says Jasper Smits, PhD, Co-Director of the Anxiety Research and Treatment Program at Southern Methodist University in Dallas and co-author, with Michael Otto, of the 2011 book “Exercise for Mood and Anxiety: Proven Strategies for Overcoming Depression and Enhancing Well-being. Smits and Otto reasoned that regular workouts might help people prone to anxiety become less likely to panic when they experience those fight-or-flight sensations. After all, the body produces many of the same physical reactions — heavy perspiration, increased heart rate — in response to exercise. They tested their theory among 60 volunteers with heightened sensitivity to anxiety. Subjects who participated in a two-week exercise program showed significant improvements in anxiety sensitivity compared with a control group.

Whether you run a marathon or do just a 15 minutes light workout, exercise helps

Karmel Choi, a clinical and research fellow at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health performed a study with the aim of finding a link between exercise and mood. “We saw a 26% decrease in odds for becoming depressed for each major increase in objectively measured physical activity,” “This increase in physical activity is what you might see on your activity tracker if you replaced 15 minutes of sitting with 15 minutes of running, or one hour of sitting with one hour of moderate activity like brisk walking.”

“What our study would say is that any kind of movement can add up to keep depression at bay. I think that’s why our study findings were especially appealing. It didn’t say you have to run a marathon, do hours of aerobics, or be a CrossFit master just to see benefits on depression,” says Choi.

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Then why do we struggle so hard to begin exercising?

Starting out too hard in a new exercise program may be one of the reasons people disdain physical activity. When people exercise above their respiratory threshold — that is, above the point when it gets hard to talk — they postpone exercise’s immediate mood boost by about 30 minutes, Michael Otto explains in his book. For novices, that delay could turn them off of the treadmill for good. Given that, he recommends that workout neophytes start slowly, with a moderate exercise plan.

Physicians frequently tell patients to work out to lose weight, lower cholesterol or prevent diabetes. Unfortunately, it takes months before any physical results of your hard work in the gym are apparent. “Attending to the outcomes of fitness is a recipe for failure,” he says.

“Many people skip the workout at the very time it has the greatest payoff. That prevents you from noticing just how much better you feel when you exercise,” he says. “Failing to exercise when you feel bad is like explicitly not taking an aspirin when your head hurts. That’s the time you get the payoff.”


The Secret Ingredient to Successful Time Management

How many times have you made a promise to yourself (or otherwise) to start doing something, only to end up backing down shortly after? Have you ever stressed yourself out by trying to incorporate too many stress management tactics? Have you lost sleep trying to fit more into your sleep routine?

It’s easy to get wrapped up in hobbies, habits, life hacks, and new commitments.

Sometimes, to squeeze more time out of the day, we sacrifice some less-celebrated yet vital habits, like sharing an evening routine with my wife or being present with my kids when I get home from work.

But the more you try to scramble to fit it all in, the more you find yourself diminishing the effectiveness of each practice.

It’s important to remember that every decision has an opportunity cost. Your actions don’t just consume energy or money, they consume time. Time is infinitely more valuable than money because, unlike money, you can never get it back. First, when you give your time to something, you’re taking it from something else. Second, while we may be awake for a good 16 hours, research suggests that in an eight-hour workday, the average worker is only productive for two hours and 53 minutes. That’s right–you’re probably only productive for around three hours a day. With so little time actually disposable to us, prioritising what we start with, and what we actually do, becomes fundamentally important.

Habits like family dinners are not traditionally categorized as personal-development practices, but they significantly impact my well-being. Too often, we neglect the benefit of these seemingly mundane habits when we are setting new goals.

One of the best solutions to figure out your way forward is to make a list of all the things you’d like to be doing, for example:

  • Exercise
  • Mobility
  • Meditation
  • Naikan gratitude/reflection practice
  • Family dinner
  • Spend the last hour of each day with my wife and go to bed at the same time
  • Call a family member
  • Take a 20-minute nap
  • Go biking
  • Go on a walk or hike
  • Spend time in nature (grounding)
  • Wim Hof breathing
  • Cold shower
  • Sauna
  • Write for a few hours each morning
  • Learn to play the piano or guitar
  • Play chess, solve riddles (cognitive development)
  • Sleep eight hours
  • Study
  • Read educational non-fiction
  • Read fiction or easy non-fiction at night
  • Do Brazilian jiu-jitsu, play tennis, or play some other active game with/against other people

There’s no way you can do all the above in one day, so the first is to prioritise. What are the activities that can wait until a time where they can fit better? And what are the activities that you absolutely should not miss?

For example, daily walks get you out in nature, provide mild exercise, and have a similar effect to meditation.

Identify what habits are essential and, thus, must be prioritized. Four habits—exercise, quality nutrition, time in nature, and time with family—offer more benefits than all the others combined.

For anyone who has more goals than time, I highly recommend taking the time to list out everything you want to do.

Get it all down in a journal or on a computer document so that you can add to it when new ideas come to you. This process will give you a sense of perspective when times are overwhelming, and you lack motivation, or when life seems stagnant.