It’s natural and normal to feel depressed at times, particularly and especially when, life throws you a curve ball. Whether it’s the ending of a relationship, a death in the family, the loss of a job, or even just adjusting to different circumstances. Depression is a mood state, just like happy, excited or sad. Across the spectrum of symptoms, there are distinctly different types of depression. From not being able to eat or sleep, to eating too much and feeling too fatigued to even get out of bed. If depression was a colour it would come in all shades, in all colours.
Exercise and Depression: Nature’s Anti-depressant
A recent meta-analysis found that engaging in physical activity could reduce your chances of developing depression by 17%. We also know that typically exercise has a large effect on reducing symptoms of depression, and this includes activities like resistance training, yoga, bouldering (rock climbing), cycling, swimming and running. A well known study done in 1999 at Duke University even concluded that exercise was as effective as medication in relieving symptoms of depression!
Luckily exercise and physical activity also comes in a full spectrum of colours, too. From walking to work in the morning, or going for a run in your lunch break, to signing up for a yoga class or going to a boxing session with a mate. There is a type of exercise for everyone, and every type of exercise can be adapted to the intensity which you like best! You can exercise alone, or with a friend, or with a bunch of strangers. You can exercise indoors or outdoors. You can literally make it whatever you want!
I say all of this because I think the words ‘exercise’ or ‘physical activity’ bring to mind images of stereotypical types of exercise, like being in a gym or being outside running, which can put a lot of people off straight away. A better term to use would be movement. And our bodies were made to move, our physiology and particularly our neurophysiology (our brain) NEEDS us to move in order for us to feel good. (If you want to read more about this, read my stress blog).
Working Out Depression
Are you sure exercise is going to make me feel better…? (Yep!)
Exercise releases endorphins (anti-stress hormones), 40 types of them to be exact. One of the effects these have is that they calm the brain and relieve muscle pain during strenuous exercise (hence why Superman can lift cars up!). Exercise also regulates all of the same neurotransmitters targeted by antidepressants.
For starters, it immediately elevates norepinephrine, waking up the brain and getting it going. As well as improving self-esteem, which is one component of depression. Exercise boosts dopamine, which improves mood and feelings of wellness, and jump-starts the attention system. Dopamine is important because it is all about driving motivation and attention, that’s why they say getting started is the hardest part!
Exercise also increases BDNF which protects neurons against cortisol in areas that control mood, including the hippocampus. It encourages neurons to connect and grow, and it vital for neuroplasticity and neurogenesis (keeping our brain young and adaptable)!
In addition to feeling good when you exercise, you feel good about yourself, and that has a positive effect that can’t be traced to a particular chemical or area in the brain. We know that norepinephrine and serotonin, which are both boosted with exercise, act on the limbic system (the amygdala, the hypothalamus and the hippocampus) which is responsible for things like how we perceive and regulate our emotions. Even small doses of exercises are effective at improving peoples quality of life and psychosocial functioning.
The best exercises for reducing/preventing depressive symptoms are:
A recent study suggests that exercising between 3 and 5 times a week for 30-60 minutes is associated with better mental health, and team sports, cycling, aerobic and gym exercise came in at the top for types of exercise associated with better mental health.
Resistance training has also shown to have a large impact on reducing depressive symptoms, particularly when supervised by a health professional and lasting shorter than 45 minutes. You can read more on this in James’ blogs here and here.
If you’ve been feeling down and you start to exercise and feel better, the sense that you’re going to be OK and that you can count on yourself shifts your entire attitude. The stability of the routine alone can dramatically improve mood. So next time you feel flat do the smart thing, the thing that future you will appreciate, and move your body (even if it’s just out of the house!). And if motivation or accountability is the issue, why not train with an Exercise Physiologist or another qualified health professional?
Exercise is not an instant cure, but if you move your body your mood basically won’t have a choice!
- It’s important to keep expectations reasonable
- Exercise outside, or in an environment that stimulates your senses
- Exercise with somebody
- Something is better than nothing!
- Try to form an exercise routine – this adds to feelings of stability
I’m writing this blog in light of an article I read recently on Daily Mail.com about exercise and pregnancy. It caught my attention because it was headlining that mothers should wait SIX MONTHS before running or doing strenuous exercise after child birth! Now, that is actually outrageous. For such a big media platform, this article is going to reach hundreds of thousands of people, and could very easily become an earnest belief for many pregnant women. Right in the middle of physical inactivity and health epidemic.
Why am I being told not to exercise?
The article stems from women’s health physiotherapists who often treat issues arising from high impact exercise done too soon after birth. Activities like running can play three times your body weight on your pelvic floor, which is in a vulnerable state after childbirth. If it’s not rehabilitated correctly (like when we experience any tissue damage), it can lead to a prolapse of the vagina, bladder and/or bowel. Women’s health physiotherapists have launched a campaign called ‘Pelvic Roar’ to raise awareness of pelvic health – which is the real issue here; awareness.
The exercise should change as you change, not stop
Our bodies don’t spring back from carrying a small human overnight. Our capacity to lift, contract, bend, stretch and even brace, will not be the same as it was before pregnancy. Hitting that pump class at the gym or bootcamp on Saturday morning’s probably isn’t a wise idea. Your body needs time to rehabilitate the muscles, tendons and ligaments that have all stretched to carry your little one. This takes specific and targeted exercises as everyone’s bodies will go through a different pregnancy journey, and will require different physical care. Exercises need to be modified and adapted as your body changes, and it’s hard to know how to do that on your own. It’s always a good idea to consult your doctor and when possible work with a clinically trained exercise professional.
Education of the effects, benefits and risks of exercise at all stages of pregnancy needs to be improved for all medical and health professionals who come into contact with new mothers. Hopefully then movement can be endorsed and embraced, with the emphasis on safety and individualisation.
5 reasons you SHOULD exercise while you’re pregnant:
If you like to consult the literature, like I do, and see what the science says; you will find a whole lot of positive evidence that supports doing exercise throughout and after your pregnancy. If you’re active before you fall pregnant it is safe to stay active during your pregnancy.
Engaging in light resistance training and aerobic exercise in the second and third trimester showed no negative effects on the risk of pre-term labour, mode of delivery, gestational age or newborn health. In fact, exercising during pregnancy had some positive effects by reducing prevalence of hypertensive and gestational diabetes and helped control excess weight gain throughout pregnancy. Potentially these factors combined with the strength, endurance and overall muscle health that is maintained during pregnancy, exercising is associated with a shorter first stage of labour. Pre- and post-natal depressive symptoms are significantly reduced with exercise,
What’s the next step?
Closer collaboration desperately needs to happen between healthcare professionals such as GPs, nurses, obstetricians, physios, exercise physiologists and fitness professionals. We need to encourage, empower and educate women who are trying to get pregnant, are pregnant or are recovering from pregnancy to exercise. But to exercise right!
If you’re currently pregnant, trying to get pregnant, know someone who is pregnant or have recently had your little one, please ask your health professionals about how you can safely make exercise work for you – or give us a call! Every pregnancy is different, it is important to seek advice from your doctor and to train with an appropriately qualified exercise professional, such as an exercise physiologist.
About the Author
Let’s start with hard facts:
Physical inactivity is the fourth leading cause of death due to non-communicable disease (heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancers) worldwide – contributing to over three million preventable deaths annually.
Nearly one in three (29.7%) adults are insufficiently active (less than 150 minutes of physical activity per week), while 14.8% are inactive (no exercise in the last week).
We know exercise is good for us! Even if we don’t really know how or why – we all know it’s good for us, it’s almost in innate knowledge. So why aren’t more of us exercising?! I think it’s fairly safe to say our motivation to exercise is a pretty universal barrier for most of us, so let’s talk about that.
Motivation to Exercise and the F Word
I’m going to go a bit left field here, stick with me… I’ve just finished reading Mark Manson’s book and a lot of what he said resonated with me not just in life, but particularly toward our motivation to exercise.
Failure is a relative concept. It totally depends on how we’re choosing to measure our success towards our goals. And our goals should be driven by our values.
The Link Between Our Values & Motivation to Exercise
Sometimes, where we go wrong is that our values aren’t quite right to help foster a positive, successful experience that builds self-efficacy and growth.
For instance, if I measure my effort at the gym by “do I look like Jennifer Aniston yet?”, I will be self-critical and negative as this is something I don’t really have control over. We have different genetics, different body types, enjoy different types of exercise, have different time constraints (the list goes on). But if I adopt the metric “maintain a regular and consistent exercise routine”, I can live up to my value of “Live a healthy, balanced life”.
Toddlers learning to walk continually fail. They stand up, take half a step, wobble, fall over, and repeat that cycle a few thousand times before they can actually walk. Never do they think “my god, I suck at this, I don’t think walking is for me!”.
However, improvement on anything is based on thousands of tiny failures. And the magnitude of your success is based on how many times you’ve failed at something. If someone is better than you at something, then it’s likely because they have failed at it more than you have. (Or done it many more times, and therefore have refined the skill and have the capacity to do it better!)
Important note: Pain is part of the process! (mentally and physically). You can’t make a muscle without tearing a few fibers!
For most of us, our proudest achievements come in the face of our greatest adversity. I know that when I’m feeling lazy and I squat 20kg I feel alright…but when I manage to push myself and squat 55kg (closer to my 1RM), I feel like I just earnt athlete status! This usually involves some stern positive self-talk at the time, and some muscle soreness the next day. Neither are comfortable, but both build resilience, strength and capacity. Both also build my motivation to exercise!
The “just do SOMETHING” Principle
To come full circle; action isn’t just the effect of motivation; it is also the cause of it.
Most of us only commit to action if we feel a certain level of motivation. And we feel motivation only when we feel enough emotional inspiration. We assume it’s a chain reaction.
The thing is, it’s not a chain, it’s an endless loop.
If we start doing something, this sparks inspiration, and then before we know it, we have motivation, and so we keep doing that thing (all the while, improving and feeling more confident) and then we feel inspired to challenge ourselves a little further, and look at that – more motivation!
Tim Ferris (American author) spoke of a story he once heard about a novelist who wrote over seventy novels. Someone asked how he was able to write so consistently and remain inspired and motivated. He replied, “two hundred crappy words per day, that’s it.”
The idea was that if he forced himself to write two hundred crappy words, more often than not, the act of writing would inspire him; and before he knew it, he’d have thousands of words down on the page.
Take home messages to improve your motivation to exercise:
- Pick small, achievable tasks or challenges
- Do SOMETHING. Something is better than nothing! (and it breeds motivation to do more)
- Make sure the way you’re measuring your success comes down to your actions and input (not other, external factors)
About the Author
Exercise and anxiety have a bit in common. They both cause increased heart rate and breathing. They both make you sweaty. And you can’t seem to think of much else at the time!
A little on anxiety…
Anxiety is something we all feel, at some point, in some way or another. It may look and feel slightly different for everyone! It’s a natural reaction to a ‘threat’ that happens at a certain point in our bodies stress response. When the sympathetic nervous system and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis shift into high gear (you may remember I touched on this in my last blog!).
When you’re preparing for a speech, this is great – because it sharpens your attention so you can rise to the challenge. Completely normal. But if you worry when there’s no real threat, to the point where you can’t function normally, that’s an anxiety disorder.
18% of the population suffers from a clinical anxiety disorder.
A study done in 2004 looked at 54 sedentary college students with generalized anxiety disorder. Split into two groups, one group ran on treadmills at 60-90% of their maximum heart rate. The second group walked. Whilst both groups showed reduced anxiety levels, the rigorous exercise worked more quickly and effectively. Furthermore, students in this group reported less fear of the physical symptoms of anxiety.
So here’s the theory:
When we raise our heart rate and our breathing in the context of exercise, we learn that these physical signs don’t necessarily lead to an anxiety attack. We become more comfortable with our body being aroused, and we don’t automatically assume that the arousal is noxious.
We use exercise to combat the symptoms of anxiety, and thus treat the state. While your level of fitness improves, you chip away at the anxiety trait. Over time, you teach the brain that the symptoms don’t always spell doom and that you can survive. You’re reprogramming the cognitive misinterpretation.
A match made in physiological heaven
How does exercise do this?
As we start using our muscles, the body breaks down fat molecules in the blood stream to fuel them. These free fatty acids compete with tryptophan to catch a ride on our transport proteins, elevating its concentration in the blood stream.
To equalize its levels, tryptophan pushes through the blood brain barrier, and is used as a building block for our old friend serotonin (feel good hormone).
BDNF, which is also released with exercise, also increases levels of serotonin, which enhances our sense of safety.
Moving the body also triggers the release of GABA, which is the brain’s major inhibitory neurotransmitter (and the primary target for most anti-anxiety medications), which interrupts the obsessive feedback loop within the brain.
When our heart starts beating hard, its muscle cells produce a molecule called atrial natriuretic peptide. That puts the brakes on our hyper-aroused state.
Clearly there is a connection between how much you exercise, and how anxious you feel.
Scientists have shown that exercise helps the average person reduce normal feelings of anxiousness – next time you’re feeling stressed, overwhelmed, or anxious, try squeezing in 15-20 minutes of huff and puff exercise and see how you feel after. You be the judge!
Broman-Fulks, Berman & Webster (2004), ‘Effects of aerobic exercise of anxiety sensitivity‘, Journal or Behaviour Research and Therapy, vol. 42, no. 2, pp. 125-136
Ratey, John J.,Hagerman, Eric. (2008) Spark :the revolutionary new science of exercise and the brain New York : Little, Brown,
About the Author
Everybody feels stressed at some point. But how do we deal with it? 75% of Australians admit that stress adversely effects their physical health and 64% report an impact on their mental health (APA, 2014). For 86% of us, watching TV or movies is our chosen coping strategy for stress and only 55% of us are getting an adequate amount of physical activity (Australian Health Survey 2011-12). So exercise, mood and stress; what’s the link? Here’s the science to support why exercise should be our go-to for those stressful situations.
You know those days where you wake up in the morning, a bunch of crazy happens and then you go to sleep (way too late)… Maybe some of this feels familiar; you’re up to your eye balls in reports at work. The kids have basketball training tonight. You forgot to get dinner out. It’s your mum’s birthday next week. You said you would help the school with their fundraiser this Friday. You promised your friend you would catch up for lunch on the weekend. You still haven’t found time to exercise, like you planned. Feeling stressed? How’s your mood?
A Brief Bio About Stress
Stress comes in many shapes and sizes, acute and chronic; social stress, physical stress, metabolic stress… just to name a few.
There is a psychological state of stress, and a physiological response to stress – it’s important to distinguish these. One is the external stressors of life, such as a looming deadline at work. The other is our internal state of stress, like when we feel we are stressed out of our minds and cannot think straight!
I want to talk about how we can manipulate one by manipulating the other.
The body’s stress response is a built-in gift from evolution, without it we wouldn’t be here today. This complex alarm system (the panic button being the amygdala), is more commonly known as the fight of flight response.
I’m going to try and explain how this process actually works in our brain using cute pictures, it gets a bit nerdy, but stick with me.
The Neurophysiology of Stress (the simple version)
Basically, the short version is: our amygdala signals the adrenal gland to release a few different hormones, such as adrenaline, which causes increases in blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing. These hormones also act on the pituitary gland which triggers the release of cortisol into our immune system. The amygdala then signals the hippocampus to start recording memories (so we remember to avoid this in future), and the prefrontal cortex assesses whether this is an actual threat requiring action.
Humans are unique in the fact that danger doesn’t have to be clear and present to illicit a stress response, we can create it ourselves. The mind is so powerful we can actually set off our stress response just by imagining we’re in a stressful situation. You see how this can start to get unhealthy…
But just as we can get ourselves into a stressful state, we can get ourselves out.
The purpose of the fight-or-flight response is to mobilise us to act, so physical activity is the natural way to prevent the negative consequences of stress. When we exercise in response to stress, we’re doing what human beings have evolved to do over the past several million years.
Your Prescription for exercise, mood and stress
If I prescribe you 1 x exercise session per day, you should see a reduction in stress symptoms and an improvement in mood immediately…
Why is that?
Now that you’re all over the neurophysiological mechanisms that are behind the stress we feel, how exactly does exercise improve our mood and reduce our stress?
- Exercise triggers the production of more insulin receptors, thus lowering blood glucose levels
- Exercise produces FGF-2 and VEGF which build new capillaries and expand the vascular system in the brain
- Exercise increases BDNF production, which is responsible for neurogenesis: the creation of new neurons
- Exercise increases serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine (feel good hormones!)
And on a physiological level, exercise can improve the stress we feel in our bodies by:
- Relaxing the resting tension of muscle spindles, breaking the stress-feedback loop to the brain
- Increasing the efficiency of the cardiovascular system, lowering blood pressure
Exercise does a whole range of juicy things to our body and our mind, and it’s virtually impossible to impact one without impacting the other – now you see why!
Just keep in mind that the more stress you have, the more your body needs to move to keep your brain running smoothly.
If you’re interested in reading more about this, pick up a copy of Psychiatrist, John Ratey’s book: SPARK; the revolutionary new science of exercise and the brain. This blog is based on the concepts discussed in Chapter 3; Stress. It’s full of stories and fascinating information about the connections between exercise and your brain, in an easily digestible format.
About the author