Photo Credit: Mike Harrington
Anyone who’s ever felt her tension ease away after a hard run, or hit the Spin bike to pedal away stress after a bad break-up, or fled to yoga after a ball-busting day at work knows that physical exercise can have a major impact on mood. Now, science is backing it up. New research out of Southern Methodist University and Boston University indicates that exercise is a "magic drug" for many people suffering from depression and anxiety, and may come in particularly handy in situations where the traditional treatments of cognitive behavioral therapy and medication are not available or too pricey.
My favorite person in the world, Grandpa Morty (the one who invented jogging) has tapped into exercise’s tension-slashing powers for decades. When he was in his 30s, he once rescued a family friend suffering from horrible clinical depression -- long before therapy and anti-depressant drugs -- by helping her get out of bed and exercise regularly. How he knew the power of exercise light years ahead of the world's best doctors, I have no idea, but ever since he introduced me to the gym in high school, I’ve been hooked… largely because of how good it makes me feel. When I’m done with a long workout and peel my sweat-soaked tank top over my head and slid my feet into my flip flops to shower, it’s like taking a dip in a pool of Lexapro. Love that.
"Individuals who exercise report fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression, and lower levels of stress and anger," reports Jasper Smits, director of the Anxiety Research and Treatment Program at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. "Exercise appears to affect, like an antidepressant, particular neurotransmitter systems in the brain, and it helps patients with depression re-establish positive behaviors. For patients with anxiety disorders, exercise reduces their fears of fear and related bodily sensations such as a racing heart and rapid breathing."
We’re not just talking a leisurely stroll around the block – though I’m sure there’s something to be said for the relaxation powers of fresh air and the sound of chirping birds (that’s why I chose a soothing bird call as my Blackberry ring tone, although it always causes heads to turn in Starbucks); you need to accumulate 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity activity or 75 minutes a week of vigorous-intensity activity.
The great thing is that the effects can be felt immediately: Unlike cholesterol or blood pressure, where you have to exercise for weeks or even months to notice a change, just a 25-minute workout can improve your mood, decrease stress and boost energy. Notes the researcher, "A bad mood is no longer a barrier to exercise; it is the very reason to exercise."
Have you ever worked out to beat stress or cope with depression? Chime in below.