According to the National Institute of Mental Health, almost seven percent of the adult population in the United States had one or more major episodes of depression in 2012. Globally, that number rises to 350 million, based on information from the World Health Organization. Estimates go even higher when it comes to anxiety. The Anxiety and Depression Association of American says anxiety affects 18.1 percent of Americans over the age of 18 every year. Although anxiety is easily treated, fewer than 40 percent of sufferers receive treatment.
Medications and counseling help many people, but they are only a part of the entire picture when it comes to treating mental illnesses. Lifestyle, diet, and exercise also play a crucial role. In a study done in 2013 at Harvard Medical School, researchers found that exercise can be as effective as medication in some people. Dr. Michael Craig Miller, assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard, says, “For some people it works as well as antidepressants, although exercise alone isn’t enough for someone with severe depression.”
Dr. Miller says that depressed or anxious people often find it hard to get motivated and recommends starting with only five minutes of exercise, such as walking, each day and slowly building up to longer periods of activity. There is no magic formula, and it usually takes a few weeks to see the results. The activity must be continued to see lasting benefits.
According to the research, exercise unleashes a flow of events that improve physical and mental health in the following ways:
While intense activity releases feel-good chemicals, researchers say the real benefit may be in less intense exercise over a sustained period of time. This is because it leads to the release of growth factors that cause nerve cells to expand and create new connections, resulting in improved brain function.
Health.com recommends three specific exercises for relief from depression and anxiety: running, hiking in the woods, and yoga. Studies show that spending time in nature improves mood, and the health benefits of yoga go back thousands of years to ancient Vedic philosophy. Multiple studies have shown that yoga has a positive effect on both depression and anxiety, and some experts attribute the perks to yoga’s meditative state and emphasis on breathing. Yogic postures also calm down the nervous system and promote relaxation.
Qigong is another exercise that focuses on meditation and the breath. The martial arts practice comes from Traditional Chinese Medicine and stems from much the same theory as acupuncture: that illness in the caused by blocked energy in the body. It literally means “energy work”, and it works on the body’s meridians or energy pathways to move energy or “qi” through the internal organs, improving communication between them. It is more a “way of being” than a physical exercise and can easily be practiced alone or in a group. Exercises consist of simple routines of slow movements that pull energy into and through the body.
While no one disagrees that exercise is good for the mind, body, and spirit, it is also important to remember that, although it helps with mood disorders, it is not a cure. It improves mood and may even help to prevent relapse, but doctors emphasize that exercise alone is not enough to treat severe depression or anxiety disorder. Exercise works best when it is part of a regimen that includes a healthy lifestyle, a good diet, a positive attitude, medical care, and a strong support system.