Wednesday 21 August 2019

Put down the pills, pick up the runners

Exercise is of considerable benefit for people with mild to moderate depression.
Exercise is of considerable benefit for people with mild to moderate depression.

John Masterson

Wouldn't it be marvellous if there was a magic bullet for mental health? And I don't mean prescription anti-depressants. In 1998, over 11 million Americans took anti-depressants at some stage during the year. By 2010, this had more than doubled to over 23 million. That is a lot of people who are going about their day-to-day business with a powerful legal chemical coursing through their veins.

What happens across the pond, we soon copy. One Irish report found that the State spent €40m on such prescriptions to 330,000 patients in 2012. Doctors estimate that between one in 10 and one in five people are using anti-depressants. Aware estimates that one in 10 of us will suffer depression during our lifetime.

That is a lot of depression and if there is no magic bullet, there is one thing that is not too far from it. Exercise. Now I know that top-class athletes who exercise for a living are not immune to depression. Set that aside for a minute and think about the general population. Most of us do not exercise enough.

The academic studies are pretty much in agreement that exercise is of considerable benefit for people with mild to moderate depression. They also find that exercise seems to be as effective as medication. But more importantly, less than one in 10 of those who exercise suffer a relapse into depression, while over one-third of those who are treated with medication do. This is probably because with changes in exercise habits come many other psychologically good things.

Self-esteem is at the centre of things. Ask anyone who has run a few miles, worked up a good sweat and reached their goal knowing they had some more in the tank, how they feel. They feel pretty good. And after a couple of months of this exercise, they notice body changes that also make them feel good.

A notch in on the belt, plus the feeling of having more energy and being generally full of beans are hard to beat.

Exercise also releases chemicals in the brain which are like a natural analgesic. Endorphin release makes you feel better. And you do not need to run a marathon. A 35-minute walk six days a week has been found to make a huge difference in anxiety levels.

Then there are the benefits of exercising with a friend. Sport brings friendship with it. In 2000, I trained for the marathon with my partner and I think we both realised it is hard to beat a glass of wine after 15 miles on a Sunday afternoon as the big day got nearer.

Exercise makes you sleep better and that is so important for good functioning during the day. If you told anyone that you had a method to reduce stress, improve self-esteem, be less anxious, sleep better, lose weight and incidentally lower your risk of all sorts of illnesses, they would jump at it.

So what is your excuse?

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