HealthZette

Is Exercise the Best Drug for Depression?

Run, walk, stretch, whatever it takes. But do something. Here's why.

Sure, a six-pack is nice. And yes, losing some weight feels great.

But have you ever thought about what lifting weights and running a 5K does not just for your body, but for your mind?

Study after study confirms that physical activity positively affects our mental health. The more we work out, and the higher the intensity — the greater the brain food.

Exercise has also been shown to decrease the vulnerability to mental disorders. The link is so strong that prescribing exercise for depression is now going somewhat mainstream in lieu of, or in addition to, medications.

Exercise compares favorably to antidepressant medications as a first-line treatment for mild to moderate depression and has also been shown to improve depressive symptoms when used as an adjunct to medications,” according to Drs. Peter Carek, Sarah Laibstain and Stephen Carek. The three were part of a study in 2011 that looked at the impact of exercise on mental illness.

As physical activity becomes more closely associated with decreased symptoms of depression and anxiety, doctors and patients seem willing to give it a try. Prescribing exercise is on the rise. In fact, at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia, doctors and college counselors are offering 10 students per semester the chance to work with a personal trainer in an effort to treat their mild to moderate depression.

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Exercise may also help keep anxiety and depression from coming back once people begin to feel better.

Another young college student at the University of Maryland told LifeZette she wished she had been better about exercising all along.

“I struggled for months and was given an antidepressant and anti-anxiety prescription. When I was diagnosed I had to leave school, I took a semester off from college, and moved back home,” the student said. “When I was home, I went to the gym every single day, which definitely helped a lot. My doctor highly recommended exercise, and I’d say it helped me recover a lot sooner.”

How does it work? Exercise releases several chemicals in the brain, including endorphins, that “feel-good” brain chemical that may ease depression, according to researchers at Mayo Clinic.

Related: Better Workout with Vitamin D

James Blumenthal, a neuroscientist at Duke University who specializes in depression, found that exercise was just as effective as medication in treating the disorder. After 16 weeks of treatment, 83 of the 156 participants enrolled in his study at Duke were declared in remission and free from depression.

Astoundingly, six months later, only 8 percent of the participants treated with exercise relapsed into depression. Compare that to 38 percent of participants who were treated only with medication.

“Overall, regular exercise, activity on most days of the week, can improve the symptoms associated with anxiety and depression disorders about as much as medication,” Carek told LifeZette.