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Is Exercise the Best Drug for Depression?

July 10, 2010 | 54,623 views
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Woman laughs after a workout

Psychologist Jasper Smits is working on an unorthodox treatment for anxiety and mood disorders. The treatment is free and has no side effects. What is it? Exercise.

Research has shown again and again that patients who follow aerobic-exercise regimens see improvement in their depression -- improvements comparable to that of those treated with medication. Exercise not only relieves depressive symptoms but also appears to prevent them from recurring.

According to Times Magazine:

"Molecular biologists and neurologists have begun to show that exercise may alter brain chemistry in much the same way that antidepressant drugs do -- regulating the key neurotransmitters serotonin and norepinephrine."
Dr. Mercola's Comments:

Studies on exercise as a treatment for depression are showing that there is a strong correlation between improved mood and aerobic capacity. So there's a growing acceptance that the mind-body connection is very real, and that maintaining good physical health can significantly lower your risk of suffering from depressive symptoms and even developing depression in the first place.

Regular, appropriately intense exercise is a must for most people suffering from depression, and unlike the other common treatment, antidepressants, will not cause any negative side effects.

Since no one is going to be making tens of billions of dollars on encouraging you to exercise, it has not received the amount of funding for studies that antidepressant drugs have received.

However when the studies are performed, exercise continually comes out on top, demonstrating benefits above and beyond what antidepressant drugs can achieve.

Exercise for Depression: What does the Research Say?

Increasing evidence is showing that exercise leads to improvements in depression that rival or surpass those from antidepressant drugs.

One study conducted by Duke University in the late 1990's divided depressed patients into three treatment groups:

  1. Exercise only
  2. Exercise plus antidepressant
  3. Antidepressant drug only

After six weeks, the drug-only group was doing slightly better than the other two groups. However, after 10 months of follow-up, it was the exercise-only group that had the highest remission and stay-well rate.

James Gordon, MD, a world-renowned expert in using mind-body medicine to heal depression, also shared in our 2008 interview:

"What we're finding in the research on physical exercise is, the physical exercise is at least as good as antidepressants for helping people who are depressed. And that's even better for older people, very interesting, even more important for older people.

And physical exercise changes the level of serotonin in your brain. It changes, increases their levels of "feel good" hormones, the endorphins. And also -- and these are amazing studies -- it can increase the number of cells in your brain, in the region of the brain, called the hippocampus.

These studies have been first done on animals, and it's very important because sometimes in depression, there are fewer of those cells in the hippocampus, but you can actually change your brain with exercise. So it's got to be part of everybody's treatment, everybody's plan."

The results really are impressive when you consider that exercise is virtually free and can provide you with numerous other health benefits too. For instance, one study found that 30-minute aerobic workouts done three to five times a week cut depressive symptoms by 50 percent in young adults.

In another study, which involved 80 adults aged 20 to 45 years who were diagnosed with mild to moderate depression, researchers looked at exercise alone to treat the condition and found:

  • Those who exercised with low-intensity for three and five days a week showed a 30 percent reduction in symptoms
  • Participants who did stretching flexibility exercises 15 to 20 minutes three days a week averaged a 29 percent decline

The results of this study are similar to that of other studies, which involved patients with mild or moderate depression being treated with antidepressants or cognitive therapy -- proving patients need not rely on drugs to treat depression.

The caution I would mention, however, is that most of the medical world is seriously confused about exercise and biased heavily toward aerobic exercises. I am convinced that you simply need some higher intensity peak exercises like I described in my recent article.

A Prescription for Exercise …

I've long said that you can use exercise like a drug to help heal numerous ailments, and now in some countries like the UK, antidepressants are no longer recommended as the first line of therapy for mild to moderate depression. Instead, doctors there write out a prescription to see an exercise counselor instead. As medical journalist and Pulitzer Prize nominee Robert Whitaker shared:

"With that prescription… you now get either a reduced rate or a free rate at a gym for six months. Part of the exercise might be "green gyms"… gardening outside, nature walks, repairing trails, hiking trails. And they are finding that people really like this. People comply with it…

People who have gone through this course and have been prescribed exercise, they say that rather than seeing themselves as a victim of depression, and helpless before it -- that they have this sort of biological problem they can't do anything about -- they say, "Aha, I can make a change, I can do something. It's in my willpower to do something that will help this problem lift."

So it empowers the patient in a different way that drugs do not."

Since 2007, when this new program was first introduced, the rate of British doctors prescribing exercise for depression has increased from about 4 percent to about 25 percent.

Considering that the major challenge many depressed people have in starting an exercise program is gathering up the motivation to do it, getting a "prescription" along with a free gym membership may be just the added incentive they need.

That, and remember that exercise often provides not only long-term benefits, but an immediate boost to your mood as well. Once you know that you can get a lift almost immediately from exercising, it becomes easier to stick to a program. As psychologist Jasper Smits told Time magazine:

"By and large, for most people, when they exercise 30 minutes -- particularly when it's a little bit more demanding and they get their heart rate up -- they feel better. You get an immediate mood lift."

And increasingly, researchers are showing that this "lift" isn't all in your head; exercise is actually capable of altering your brain chemistry in a beneficial way.

How Exercise Alters Your Brain for the Better

As Time magazine reported, neuroscience professor Philip Holmes and colleagues from the University of Georgia have found that exercise regulates serotonin and norepinephrine, two key neurotransmitters in your brain. And in just a few weeks, exercise "switches on" genes that increase your brain levels of galanin, a neurotransmitter that helps lessen your body's stress response. Time magazine stated:

"The result is that exercise primes the brain to show less stress in response to new stimuli … A little bit of mental strain and excess stimulation from exercise, in other words, may help us to keep day-to-day problems in perspective."

The NEW Peak Fitness Program

Dr. Al Sears first introduced me to his PACE concept but I always found his material to general and non specific and no information on the use of this exercise for growth hormone. I really started to understand this when I met Phil Campbell at a fitness camp earlier this year in Mexico. He wrote the book Ready Set Go which details how these exercises for super fast muscle fibers can increase growth hormone.

So that is the history and what we sought to do is to provide the material in a digestible format, just like we do with the medical news, to provide you with a simple to comprehend guide that can explode you into fitness and health. In addition the the peak cardio exercises promoted by Sears and Campbell, we are seeking to promote a holistic approach to exercise.

Peak fitness is a term I am coining to represent a comprehensive exercise program that includes far more than typical cardio training. The major change is that once or twice a week you do peak exercises, in which you raise your heart rate up to your anaerobic threshold for 20 to 30 seconds, and then you recover for 90 seconds.

You would repeat this cycle for a total of eight repetitions. These cycles are preceded by a three minute warm up and two minute cool down so the total time investment is about 20 minutes.

It has been my personal experience that using this approach is far more effective than traditional cardio for a number of reasons that I will describe below. I was able to use this to help me lose over ten pounds of body fat and get my percent body fat down to 12 percent, but my goal is single digits.

The intensity is absolutely individual. For some it may be as simple as fast walking alternating with slow walking.

You can improvise it into just about any type of exercise, and you really don't require a gym membership or any equipment to do it. If you do have access to equipment, using an elliptical or recumbent bike work really well.

One of my favorites is to use a recumbent bike. It is extremely challenging, and I enjoy that! This is the one I chose and am personally committed to, but the alternatives are almost limitless.

They key is to push your heart rate into that training zone for 30 seconds and then recover slowly for 90 seconds.

We call it "peak fitness" because if you graph your heart rate, you will see that it peaks 8 times during the workout.

Exercise to Increase Your Levels of the "Fitness Hormone"

One of the major reasons I am so enthusiastic about peak fitness is that it can actually increase your growth hormone level.

Yes, I realize that many athletes are injecting this illegally to achieve fitness, but it is expensive and fraught with side effects.

Peak fitness exercises, on the other hand, can actually cause your growth hormone to increase naturally, without any of the expense or side effects.

In order to better grasp the benefits of peak fitness exercises, you first need to understand that you have three different types of muscle fibers: slow, fast, and super-fast. And only ONE of these muscles will impact your production of a vital hormone called HGH, or human growth hormone, which is KEY for strength, health and longevity.

skinny marathoner fit musculat sprinterCurrently, the vast majority of people, including many athletes such as marathon runners, only train using their slow muscle fibers, which has the unfortunate effect of actually causing the super fast fibers to decrease or atrophy.

In fact, neither traditionally performed aerobic cardio nor strength training will work anything but your slow muscles. These are the red muscles, which are filled with capillaries and mitochondria, and hence a lot of oxygen.

Next you have the fast type of fiber which is also red muscle, and oxygenates quickly, but is five times faster than the slow fibers. Power training, or plyometrics burst types of exercises will engage these fast muscles.

The super-fast ones are the white muscle fibers. They contain far less blood and less densely packed mitochondria. These muscle fibers are what you use when you do anaerobic short burst exercises.

High intensity burst cardio is the form of exercise that will engage these super fast fibers. They're ten times faster than slow fibers, and this is the key to producing growth hormone!

Are You in Somatopause (Age Related Growth Hormone Deficiency?)

As you reach your 30s and beyond, you enter what's called "somatopause," when your levels of HGH begin to drop off quite dramatically. This is part of what drives your aging process.

It has been my experience that nearly everyone over 30 has dramatically abnormal levels of this important hormone because they begin leading increasingly more sedentary lifestyles. 

Children and most animals in the wild do not run marathons or lift weights, they move at high speeds for very short periods of time and then rest. This is natural and what optimizes the production of growth hormone.

The higher your levels of growth hormone, the healthier and stronger you're going to be. And the longer you can keep your body producing higher levels of HGH, the longer you will experience robust health and strength.

Dr. Harvey Cushing discovered HGH in the form of somatotropin almost a hundred years ago. Many individuals choose to inject it, though it is a banned substance in many professional sports. 

As I said earlier, I don't recommend doing this as I believe the health risks and cost are in no way justifiable.

Ideally, you really want your body to produce it naturally, as injecting HGH does have side effects. And the way you produce it is by exercising your super-fast muscle fibers.

Benefits of Peak Fitness Exercises

Once you regularly participate in these 20 minute excises about twice a week, most everyone notices the following benefits:

  • Lowers your body fat
  • Dramatically improves muscle tone
  • Firms your skin and reduces wrinkles
  • Boosts your energy and sexual desire
  • Improves athletic speed and performance
  • Allows you to achieve your fitness goals much faster

How to Properly Perform Peak Fitness Exercises to Increase Your Growth Hormone Levels

First of all, please remember that you can perform this with any type of exercise. While having access to a gym or exercise equipment will provide you with a larger variety of options, you don't require either. You can easily perform this by walking or running on flat ground.

You will certainly want to work your way up to this point, but ultimately you want to exercise vigorously enough so you reach your anaerobic threshold as this is where the "magic" happens that will trigger your growth hormone release.

Whatever activity you choose, by the end of your 30 second period you will want to reach these markers:

  • It will be relatively hard to breathe and talk because you are in oxygen debt
  • You will start to sweat profusely. Typically this is occurs in the second or third repetition unless you have a thyroid issue and don't sweat much normally.
  • Your body temperature will rise
  • Lactic acid increases and you will feel a muscle "burn"

If you are using cardio equipment like an elliptical or bike, you don't need to reach any "magical" speed. It's highly individual, based on your current level of fitness. But you know you're doing it right when you're exerting yourself to the point of typically gasping for breath, after a short burst of activity.

An added boon is that you'll save a tremendous amount of time because peak fitness will cut your hour-long cardio workout down to a total of 20 minutes or so, including your recovery time, warm-up and cool down.

The actual sprinting totals only 4 minutes!

Here's what a typical peak fitness routine might look like using a recumbent bike:

  1. Warm up for three minutes
  2. Exercise as hard and fast as you can for 30 seconds. You should feel like you couldn't possibly go on another few seconds
  3. Recover for 90 seconds
  4. Repeat the high intensity exercise and recovery 7 more times

Be mindful of your current fitness level and don't overdo it when you first start out.

If you are not in great shape and just starting this you may want to start with just two or three repetitions, and work your way up to eight, which is where the magic really starts to happen. You may need to start with just walking and when you do your 30 second bursts your legs would be moving as fast as possible without running - and your arms would be pumping hard and fast.

If you can do a peak fitness workout twice a week, and follow the dietary recommendations I'll go over next, you will increase your production of growth hormone.

Dietary Recommendations to Maximize Growth Hormone Release

To maximize your growth hormone release you need to:

  • Get a good night's sleep
  • Avoid a high fat meal prior to exercising
  • Drink plenty of water
  • Eat healthy carbs (think vegetables) and high quality protein
  • Optimize your vitamin D levels
  • Avoid sugar, especially fructose

The last part is absolutely crucial.

If you consume sugar or fructose, especially within two hours post-exercise, you will increase somatostatin which will in turn obliterate the production of growth hormone!

This is yet another example of why gulping down sports drinks that are chockfull of high fructose corn syrup can do your body more harm than good, and will just shut down your body's production of HGH and negate many of the benefits from your exercise.

Creating a Comprehensive Exercise Plan

You really do need a comprehensive approach to exercise, which is a major part of our peak fitness exercise approach.

Ideally you want to have a variety of exercises and avoid doing the same ones all the time, as this will lead to a relative tolerance and you will not provide your body with the variety of stresses it needs to continuously adapt, improve, and grow stronger.

There are four additional types that will turn your peak fitness regimen into a truly comprehensive exercise plan:

  1. Aerobic: No, I didn't say you had to quit straight aerobics altogether, (even though I did, and am reaping greater results than before). Jogging, using an elliptical machine, and walking fast are all examples of aerobic exercise, which will increase the amount of oxygen in your blood and increase endorphins, which act as natural painkillers. Aerobic exercise also activates your immune system, helps your heart pump blood more efficiently, and increases your stamina over time.

  2. Strength Training: Rounding out your exercise program with a 1-set strength training routine will ensure that you're really optimizing the possible health benefits of a regular exercise program. You need enough repetitions to exhaust your muscles. The weight should be heavy enough that this can be done in fewer than 12 repetitions, yet light enough to do a minimum of four repetitions. It is also important NOT to exercise the same muscle groups every day. They need at least two days of rest to recover, repair and rebuild.

  3. Core Exercises: Your body has 29 core muscles located mostly in your back, abdomen and pelvis. This group of muscles provides the foundation for movement throughout your entire body, and strengthening them can help protect and support your back, make your spine and body less prone to injury and help you gain greater balance and stability. Pilates and yoga are great for strengthening your core muscles, as are specific exercises you can learn from a personal trainer. Even if a personal trainer is not in the cards for you right now, please watch these sample videos for examples of healthy exercise routines you can do with very little equipment and in virtually any location. http://fitness.mercola.com/sites/fitness/videos.aspx Focusing on your breath and mindfulness along with increasing your flexibility is an important element of total fitness.

  4. Stretching: My favorite types of stretches are active isolated stretching (AIS) http://www.stretchingusa.com/ developed by Aaron Mattes. It's an amazing way to get flexibility back into your system, and it's completely different from the traditional type of stretching.

My Heart Rate for Peak Fitness Workout

Dr. Mercola's Heart Rate for Complete Peak Workout

Four More Natural Tips to Beat Depression

Like many of you, I have been personally affected by depression, as someone very near and dear to me suffered from it, and actually made several unsuccessful suicide attempts many years ago that were truly devastating.

This illness can be truly tragic on a person's life, so I urge you to seek out a knowledgeable natural health care practitioner who can help you on your healing journey. Along with exercise, below you will find the four cornerstones of healthy living that would be part of any successful treatment plan.

  1. Address your stress -- Depression is a very serious condition, however it is not a "disease." Rather, it's a sign that your body and your life are out of balance.

    This is so important to remember, because as soon as you start to view depression as an "illness," you think you need to take a drug to fix it. In reality, all you need to do is return balance to your life, and one of the key ways to doing this is addressing stress.

    Meditation or yoga can help. Sometimes all you need to do is get outside for a brisk walk. But in addition to that, I also recommend using a system that can help you address emotional issues that you may not even be consciously aware of. For this, my favorite is Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT). However, if you have depression or serious stress, I believe it would be best to consult with a mental health professional who is also an EFT practitioner to guide you.

  2. Eat a healthy diet -- Another factor that cannot be overlooked is your diet. Foods have an immense impact on your mood and ability to cope and be happy, and eating whole foods as described in my nutrition plan will best support your mental health. Avoiding sugar and grains will help normalize your insulin and leptin levels, which is another powerful tool in addressing depression.

  3. Support optimal brain functioning with essential fats -- I also strongly recommend supplementing your diet with a high-quality, animal-based omega-3 fat, like krill oil. This may be the single most important nutrient to battle depression.

  4. Get plenty of sunshine – Making sure you're getting enough sunlight exposure to have healthy vitamin D levels is also a crucial factor in treating depression or keeping it at bay. One previous study found that people with the lowest levels of vitamin D were 11 times more prone to be depressed than those who had normal levels. Vitamin D deficiency is actually more the norm than the exception, and has previously been implicated in both psychiatric and neurological disorders.

[+] Sources and References