Exercise and Major Depression

Learn how exercise and physical activity can change your brain chemistry and support your major depression treatment plan.

Exercise is prescribed for a wide variety of health conditions — from heart disease to diabetes. Science shows being active can improve your physical and mental health, and make positive changes in your brain chemistry. But if you’re battling major depression, the thought of working out may seem unthinkable. Here’s some information about the benefits of exercise that may change your mind.

Exercise and Nerve Growth    Early brain chemistry research found that mice living in an exercise-friendly environment stopped acting depressed after a stressful social experience — while mice who didn’t exercise stayed depressed. Scientists attribute the mice’s recovery to the growth of new brain nerves caused by exercise.  This and other research has led scientists to understand how brain nerve growth works in humans, too. Adults affect their brain chemistry through experiences — such as physical activities — and how they respond to them. The proteins largely responsible for the brain’s ability to adapt and change are called neurotrophins. Antidepressants affect neurotrophins in the brain — and so does exercise.

Benefits of Exercise Therapy for Depression In addition to stimulating new nerve growth and improving your ability to think, remember, and learn, exercise boosts serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, and endorphins in your brain. These neurotransmitters help you calm down and focus. In studies, exercise therapy has also shown an antidepressant effect.

One Duke University researcher, James Blumenthal, PhD, has been studying exercise and MDD for over a decade. “Based on the best available evidence to date,” Dr. Blumenthal believes that “exercise may be generally comparable to medication in the treatment of MDD.” Similar studies continue to find at least modest clinical benefit for exercise and better mental health. But don’t self-treat your depression symptoms or try to get through your recovery with exercise alone. Talk to your doctor about treatment and self-care options — including exercise — that are right for you.

Adding Exercise to Your Treatment Plan Once you start exercising, you’re likely to notice some changes in your symptoms right away. “Simply moving more and sitting less will make a difference in how you feel,” says exercise physiologist and dietitian Amy Ogle, MS, RD. “And if you typically exercise alone, consider working out with a group or partner because the social connection helps lessen depressive symptoms.”

Shoot for at least 2 1/2 hours of exercise in a week. Strength training counts toward that time, too. Just remember to check with your doctor first, especially if you have another medical condition.

“Sticking to a plan and following your progress,” Ms. Ogle adds, “will renew your sense of self-mastery and control.”  You can progress to the following routine:

  • 5-10 min warm-up, gently moving upper and lower body in full range of motion
  • 30 min aerobic exercise, such as walking, light jogging, swimming, biking or a group exercise class. You should be able to talk, but not comfortably sing.
  • 5 min cool-down and stretching
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Top Ways to Get Your Energy Back — Now

February 21, 2010 12:00 AM by Mehmet C. Oz, MD, and Michael F. Roizen, MD

You’re grumpy at the groundhog (who needed extra weeks of winter?) and a little short with your spouse, and you have been spending more time with the mac-and-cheese casserole than the treadmill. Winter can do that. But it doesn’t have to. Use these strategies to cuff the classic energy thieves that are still hanging around this time of year, and get your mojo back before spring hits:

Energy thief #1: Short, dark days.
What happens: Short days can cause seasonal affective disorder (SAD) — neurochemical changes in your brain due to lack of sunlight. This results in depression in up to 6% of Americans (the further north you go, the more likely you are to be a SAD sufferer). From late fall until spring, people with SAD become depressed, sleep too much, withdraw from friends, and battle low energy and relentless carb cravings.
Turn it around: Light therapy — sitting in front of a special box that shines ultra bright lights — has long been considered to be the best way to combat SAD. But a new University of Vermont study reveals that cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) may be even better. CBT is a type of psychotherapy that helps people outsmart depression by teaching them to change their negative ways of thinking. In fact, in this study, CBT alone was able to stomp out SAD with a success rate of 81% (compared with 49% for CBT plus light therapy and 32% for light therapy alone). Why wouldn’t more therapies be better? Researchers surmise that trying to balance two therapies was just too confusing, but CBT alone allowed people to focus on the coping skills they needed to banish their winter blues.

Energy thief #2: You can’t get enough comfort.
What happens: When the mercury heads south, we crave calories, carbs (they help our brains make the calming neurotransmitter serotonin), and fat. In fact, a 2006 University of Massachusetts Medical School study found that once the days become shorter, we pack away an average of 86 extra calories a day and weigh more than at any other time of year. We also snarf down more total and artery-clogging saturated fat.
Turn it around: Just cozy up to good-for-you carbs and healthy omega-3 and omega-9 fats that will satisfy your biology and your brain without packing on a gratuitous layer of blubber.

Trade meatloaf and pot roast for hearty whole grains like whole-wheat pasta and brown rice, or try polenta, a veggie burger, or salmon. Or warm up with a satisfying bean-based vegetable chili or Tuscan white bean soup. Since beans and whole grains are digested slowly, they’ll keep you full longer, so you’ll eat less overall. And if it seems like there are slim pickings in the produce department, now is actually the prime time to load up on nutrient-packed starches, including sweet potatoes and winter squash (roast or bake them with a drizzle of olive oil). Finish your feast with seasonal winter fruit (think apples, pears, oranges, grapefruit, and tangerines, or even frozen berries) topped with a sprinkle of heart-healthy walnuts or almonds and you’ll get all the carbs and fats your body craves — but you’ll do it the healthy way.

Energy thief #3: You stay in. On the couch.
What happens: Your workout plan bites the dust. We log less exercise in winter than any other time of year, with a paltry 45% of Americans and 36% of Canadians keeping active. Pretty ironic, since exercise can lift you out of the winter doldrums by boosting energy, improving mood, and helping you sleep better.
Turn it around: Start with your schedule. Make regular exercise appointments on your calendar the same way you’d ink in any other non-negotiable activity. But give yourself a bit of a break: Don’t think exercise needs to be a hard-core trip to the gym. Taking the dog for an extra-long walk or doing crunches and lifting weights in front of the TV count, too. Still uninspired? Try the 10-minute rule. Make a deal with yourself to get moving for at least 10 minutes. Chances are, once you start, you’ll feel so much better that you’ll keep going.

4 Foods for Better Immunity

Your immune system is responsible for helping fight off everything from the common cold to cancer. A tall order!

Send in some reinforcements so it doesn’t get battle fatigue. Here are four foods your immune system loves.

Sweet, Creamy, Steamy, Crunchy . . . Oranges, yogurt, tea, and pumpkin seeds are the order of the day when it comes to giving your immune system a treat, according to experts Michael Roizen, MD, and Mehmet Oz, MD, authors of the best-selling (and now newly expanded and updated) YOU: The Owner’s Manual. Here’s how these four superfoods help:

  • Oranges are chock-full of vitamin C, an antioxidant vitamin that helps your immune system fend off disease-causing invaders. Other good C options: bell peppers, strawberries, cantaloupe, and broccoli. Or take 400 milligrams of vitamin C three times daily.
  • Yogurt (unpasteurized) contains Lactobacillus acidophilus — a healthy bacterium that helps thwart fungus-related infections. Or take a 20-milligram acidophilus supplement twice daily.
  • Tea is full of flavonoids, powerful vitamin-like substances that reduce immune-system aging. You’ll also find them in oats, onions, broccoli, tomatoes, apples, and berries.
  • Pumpkin seeds are great year round, not just at Halloween, because they contain zinc — a nutrient that’s been shown to help reduce the average length of the common cold.

A Healthier Way to Stay Energized

Say “get iron,” and most people think they need a side of beef — or at least a hefty plateful — to stave off fatigue and refuel their immune system. The fact is, you don’t need red meat at all to get plenty of iron to power you through your fusion yoga class, four client presentations, dinner with your in-laws (but you might need some red wine here), a walk with the dog, and maybe another type of romp or two in a day.

Too much red meat can overload you with heme iron, a form of the mineral that can boost your risk of type 2 diabetes. We know you already know that meat can overload you with saturated fat.

Fortunately, heme iron is far easier to dodge than the perfume-spritzing people at the mall. Plant-based foods contain only nonheme iron, which is free of any dirty links to diabetes. It’s pretty easy for men to get what they need — about 8 milligrams (mg) of iron a day — from food: A cup of cooked spinach alone contains 6.4 mg, versus 3.4 mg for a burger. Other good options: kidney beans (3.6 mg per half cup), oatmeal (3.4 mg per cup), and almonds (1 mg per ounce).

However, premenopausal women need about 18 mg a day, so taking a multi with iron is smart, especially since iron from plants tends to be harder to absorb than iron from meat. Help your body soak it up with these tricks:

1. Eat iron-rich foods with vitamin C-rich foods. (Think oatmeal and OJ, chili with beans. See? It’s easy.)

2. Calcium blocks absorption of iron, so separate your calcium supplement and your spinach by a few hours.

3. Coffee and tea interfere with iron, so keep those apart, too.