This is the sixth post in a series of entries I will be writing on Post-College Depression.
In the first post of this series I talked about what post-college depression is and typical symptoms and causes. In the second post we discussed how a lack of a sense of control over one's life can result in millennials and emerging adults from Generation Y developing post-college depression. In the third we talked about how the tyranny of choice and high expectations can lead to stress, anxiety, and depression after college. In the fourth we talked about how you can use positive psychology techniques to combat postcollege depression, anxiety, and stress. In the fifth we talked about how you can use journal writing to conquer the postcollege blues. Today we will take about how you can use exercise to improve your mood and mental health.
We all know that exercise can make you look and feel better, but were you aware that it is one of the most effective ways to fight anxiety and depression? Exercise’s powerful psychological effects have been shown to consistently fight the blues and are even as effective as more traditional forms of treatment.
Exercise Compared to Therapy
In a study by psychiatrist John Griest and colleagues from the University of Wisconsin, two groups of patients with major depression were randomly assigned to either an exercise group that ran for forty minutes, three times a week, or to one of two forms of individual psychotherapy. At the end of ten weeks the participants in all three groups showed significant reductions in depression.
What was significant was that there was no difference in improvement among the three groups. In other words, exercise worked just as well as psychotherapy. The researchers also found that the people who kept exercising continued to show improvement at the one, three, six, and nine-month follow-ups.
Exercise Compared to Antidepressant Medication
Antidepressant medication is currently the number-one form of therapy for depression and yet even though more and more antidepressants are being recommended each year, the rate of depression continues to increase and shows no signs of slowing down. More importantly, antidepressants can be expensive and carry unwanted side effects such as dizziness, dry mouth, nausea, and sexual dysfunction.
So how does exercise compare? In a sixteen-week study by James Blumenthal and colleagues at Duke University, participants were assigned to an exercise group, an antidepressant group, or a combination group.
The exercise group exercised for thirty minutes, three times a week, while the medication group received the popular antidepressant Zoloft, and subjects in the exercise/medication group received the same type of medication and performed the same exercise regimen as those in the two other groups.
At the end of sixteen weeks the researchers found that all three groups experienced reductions in depressive symptoms. Over 60 percent of those in the exercise group no longer met the diagnostic criteria for major depressive disorder, compared to 68 percent of the people in the medication group, and 65 percent of those in the exercise/medication group.
In other words, exercise alone was comparable to the effectiveness of antidepressant medication and comparable to medication combined with exercise in alleviating the subjects’ symptoms of depression (1999).
Michael Babyak and his colleagues at Duke then followed these people for six months after the initial study and found that the subjects who continued to exercise were much less likely to see their depression return than the individuals who relied on medication alone or used a combination of both medication and exercise. In fact, only 8 percent of those in the exercise group relapsed, compared to 38 percent of those in the medication group, and 31 percent of those in the medication/exercise group.
This means that over four times as many people relapsed when they used antidepressants compared to people who used exercise alone! how soon will you begin feeling better? One question you may have is how quickly you will start feeling better after beginning to exercise regularly. Well, this answer depends on a number of factors.
Individual characteristics and the seriousness of a person’s emotional state must always be taken into account. However, Dr. Fernando Dimeo and his colleagues have found that you can start deriving the mood-elevating benefits of exercise right from your first workout.
Dimeo took twelve people diagnosed with moderate to severe depression and had them exercise on a treadmill for thirty minutes a day for ten days. Dimeo found that their symptoms had dropped by an average of 33 percent.
In fact, five of the patients had their depression scores decrease by over 50 percent in only ten days. What is even more surprising is that exercise worked faster than antidepressant drugs, which generally take two to four weeks to begin working.
Which Exercise is Best?
Is there a specific type of exercise that is best for relieving depression? The research has found that the most effective form of exercise is the one you like the most, because consistency seems to be the most important factor in producing mood-elevating effects. Walking, running, swimming, aerobic dance, weight training, and yoga have all been shown to produce similar antidepressant effects.
Whatever exercise you use, you will want to do it at least three times a week for about twenty-five to thirty minutes. You also don’t have to exercise at a high intensity to get the mental health benefits described above. Again, consistency is what matters most.
Creating Your Own Exercise Prescription
When developing your own program, you will want to keep the following in mind to get the most out of exercising:
Do something you enjoy. While I was a personal trainer I found this to be one of the most important things to consider when starting an exercise program. If you’re not having fun while you are exercising, not only will you be spending your time in a bad experience, but you will most likely lose motivation pretty quickly and not stick to your program.
One thing to look at when thinking about the kind of exercise you like is whether you like exercising by yourself or in a group. Quite often, group activities like exercise classes, walking in a group, or organized sports are great ways to get exercise that also add a social component, which can increase your enjoyment and adherence. So answer the following questions:
- What kind of exercise do you like?
- Why do you like it?
- Do you like doing it by yourself or in a group?
- Do you enjoy exercising inside, outdoors, or both?
Get specific. When thinking about your program, you will want to get specific about what you want to accomplish. To help you with your goals, apply the goal-setting techniques you learned about in chapter 2 to your exercise program. Try to set both long-and short-term goals, figure out what you need to do to accomplish them, and then in your journal measure your progress (both physical and mental).
Keep it realistic. One thing you want to keep in mind when making your goals is keeping them realistic. If you set your goals too high or think you’re suddenly going to start exercising five times a week for two hours a day, you may be setting yourself up for failure. This kind of common error can actually increase your sense of helplessness because it seems like you can’t even control this aspect of your life.
So start out with a realistic goal—something like exercising three times a week for twenty to thirty minutes. As you integrate physical activity in your life, you can gradually increase the intensity or frequency.
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