Exercise a first line treatment for anxiety and depression?
Mental health providers swear by exercise as a primary form of treatment for depression, anxiety and other mood disorders. Research has shown again and again that patients who follow regular exercise regimens see improvement in their mood — improvements comparable to that of those treated with medication. The results really are impressive when you consider that exercise is virtually free and can provide you with numerous other health benefits too. The benefits to your mood occur whether the exercise is voluntary or forced, so even if you feel you have to exercise, say for health reasons, there’s a good chance you’ll still benefit.
Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder devised an animal study to determine whether rats that were forced to exercise would experience the same stress and anxiety reduction as those who were free to choose if and when to exercise. The rats exercised either voluntarily or forcibly for six weeks, after which they were exposed to a stressor. The following day, their anxiety levels were tested by measuring how long they froze when placed in an environment they’d been conditioned to fear. The longer the rats remained frozen, like “a deer in headlights,” the greater the residual anxiety from the previous day’s stressor. The study found that regardless of whether the rats chose to run or were forced to run they were protected against stress and anxiety. The sedentary rats froze for longer periods of time than any of the active rats. The implications are that humans who perceive exercise as being forced — perhaps including those who feel like they have to exercise for health reasons — are maybe still going to get the benefits in terms of reducing anxiety and depression.
Newly formed ‘young’ neurons can be prone to easy excitement, making them quite efficient at inducing anxiety. Physical exercise creates excitable new neurons in abundance, which is beneficial in the long run, but would be expected to increase anxiety rates in the short term. However, an animal study comparing running mice with sedentary mice found that while the exercising animals’ brains ‘teemed with many new, excitable neurons,’ they also contained new neurons designed to release a neurotransmitter called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). GABA inhibits excessive neuronal firing. This helps to induce a natural state of calm. Commonly prescribed anti-anxiety drugs like Ativan, Xanax and Valium actually exert a calming effect in this same manner, by boosting the action of GABA.
Exercise appears to go one step further, however, as when the mice were later exposed to a stressful situation, the study found that the exercising mice, as opposed to the sedentary mice, responded with only an initial rush of anxiety, followed by calm.
A study published in 2005 found that walking fast for about 35 minutes a day five times a week or 60 minutes a day three times a week had a significant influence on mild to moderate depression symptoms. Walking fast for only 15 minutes a day five times a week or doing stretching exercises three times a week did not help as much. (These exercise lengths were calculated for someone who weighs about 150 pounds. If you weigh more, longer exercise times apply, while the opposite is true if you weigh less than 150 pounds.)
Besides lifting your mood, regular exercise offers other health benefits, such as lowering blood pressure, protecting against heart disease and cancer, and boosting self-esteem. How often or intensely you need to exercise to alleviate depression is not clear, but for general health, experts advise getting half an hour to an hour of moderate exercise, such as brisk walking, on all or most days of the week.