Depression, anxiety, lethargy – put your hand up if you’ve experienced any of these symptoms throughout your life. Yep, thought so. I’m not here to gloss over the intricacies of each case, but I would like to question why there is such a strong focus on medication when it comes to treatment. And why are we so quick to take a pill for everything? Of course every case is different, and symptoms will range from mild to severe, but what I can’t understand is why exercise isn’t being prescribed as a simple introductory form of treatment in so many instances. Whether or not this will make significant changes to the root cause, general fitness will help to alleviate the symptoms – even if that involves something as simple as going for a daily walk. The problem is, if the doctors and health practitioners prescribing the medication are not into fitness themselves, they’re unlikely to be aware of the latest health benefits and exercise trends to even suggest.
For the most part, the majority of us live sedentary lifestyles, in societies built on automotive travel and office jobs. We don’t walk enough day to day, barely hitting the 5,000 steps per day mark, and even though many of us are sporting the latest fitness trackers in an attempt to move more, that doesn’t mean we’re all achieving that base of 10,000 steps per day. I spent last summer city-hopping, and I racked up some serious daily step counts in cities like New York, London and Barcelona, constantly moving and exploring – on my feet the whole time. Yes walking everywhere can tire you out, but your body is doing what it was designed to do, covering that base level of exercise, so anything you do on top of that can then focus on calorie-burning, toning, strength and stamina building – or whatever your goal may be. In our sedentary set-ups, that hour of exercise, even if daily, is not going to counteract the effects of sitting at a desk for the other 9 hours of that day. As societies, we’ve successfully established inactivity as the norm, and we need to change that ASAP.
Using exercise as a form of therapy makes sense, and many of us do it quite naturally, without really thinking about it. You feel low, slow, sluggish, so you go for a brisk walk, a swim, a group class – and you come out feeling so much better, riding that natural high. Falling into a depressive state can become very cyclical and difficult to get out of – it can become a psychological black hole, a Groundhog Day until you shake yourself out of it. The more lethargic you become, the more difficult it is to get yourself to exercise – but you need to give your body that jolt physically if you’re going to get out of that rut. Not to oversimplify things, or to say that exercise will relieve people entirely of their symptoms, and perhaps it will be prescribed alongside regular medication – it all depends on the what and the why. But moderate exercise is a start, and I don’t believe that enough doctors are writing out a prescription to simply MOVE MORE before they hand over the pills.
Having said that, some countries are taking the exercise point more seriously, highlighting countries such as Canada, the UK, and the Netherlands which are presenting exercise as a first-line treatment – so it’s a good start! Patients in Australia and New Zealand are first encouraged to start exercising, simply on the grounds that living a sedentary lifestyle could actually be the cause of the depression in the first place. I’m not a doctor, but this makes sense to me.
“In clinical studies, regular aerobic exercise is as effective as antidepressants in reducing symptoms of mild to moderate depression. And that’s not just because moving might help you get into shape and feel better about yourself. Exercise actually causes the same structural changes to the brain as antidepressants—neuroplasticity, or creating new neural pathways, and growth in the hippocampus, a part of the brain that’s generally shrunken in people with depression.” – Scott Douglas, author and contributing editor for Runner’s World.
And this is what even a moderate level of exercise can do for the body and the mind:
1. Endorphin release
Your body is creating and unleashing a natural boost of energy, helping to counteract the physical symptoms you might be feeling, at least for that period of exercise. The more you work out, the more enduring the effects, which on a day to day basis, can progressively help to bring you out of a state of lethargy and energy slump.
2. Getting into shape
Being in shape feels good and can certainly help to make you feel better about yourself – whether that’s because of the clothes you feel comfortable wearing, or simply because you feel lighter and more energetic, impacting how you feel both outwardly and inwardly.
3. Getting out of a rut
This could be a result of long days at the office, or being in a negative relationship, or facing constant external pressures that are getting you down. Exercise is a great distraction from those stressors, shifting your attention towards achieving a physical goal, rather than holding onto negative thoughts or unhealthy behaviours.
4. Sedentary lifestyle shift
It’s becoming an epidemic and there needs to be more of a focus on corporate wellness and employee health in order to see employees work to their full potential. Exercise will provide that much needed respite from the rat race, opening up space for creativity and problem-solving.
5. Setting goals
Achievement is rewarding in any context, and reaching a physical goal is a tangible reward for your efforts, which creates a positive mindset and healthy goal-oriented focus. Just make sure to start off with achievable targets and build yourself up, otherwise you’re defeating the object with this one.
6. Building confidence
Sport is a great way to build confidence and camaraderie. If you play in a team you build strong ties and get immersed in the competitive team spirit; you will see yourself grow, both as a team and a player. Achieving fitness goals requires a lot of focus and determination – it’s a journey you take yourself on and as you steadily reach those goals you build yourself both physically and mentally.
7. Keep it simple
There’s no need to overcomplicate it. You move, you exercise, you feel good. It’s as simple as that.