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Natural Happiness: The Truth About Exercise and Depression

Natural Happiness: The Truth About Exercise and Depression

We all want to be happy, but is there anything you can actually do to feel happier more often? Or, at the very least, can you limit the likelihood that you’ll feel sad and depressed?

There isn’t a single perfect answer, of course, but research is starting to reveal the incredible connection between our physical actions and our mental health. In fact, it’s very possible that what you do can have a significant impact on how you feel.

As an example, let’s take a look at the link between exercise and depression.

Dealing With Depression: Exercise vs. Medication

James Blumenthal is a neuroscientist at Duke University who specializes in depression. In one of his most famous experiements, published in the Journal of Biobehavioral Medicine, Blumenthal gathered 156 adults who had mild or moderate cases of depression.

The patients were split into three groups.

Group 1 was treated with sertraline, an antidepressant drug. You probably know sertraline by it’s trade names Zoloft and Lustral. In 2011, over 37 million sertraline prescriptions were written to treat a wide range of issues, including major depressive disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic and social anxiety.

Group 2 used a combination of exercise and medication. They were prescribed the same dosage of sertraline as Group 1. Additionally, Group 2 exercised three times each week for 45 minutes at a time. They followed the same exercise program that is described for Group 3 below.

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Group 3 used an exercise-only treatment. Three times per week, they performed 45 minutes of exercise. This included 10 minutes of warm up, 30 minutes of walking or jogging at a pace that would maintain a heart rate that was 80% to 90% of their maximum, and then 5 minutes of cool down.

Here’s what happened:

Each patient received treatment for 16 weeks (4 months) under the supervision of the researchers and professional staff. At the end of the treatment period, the researchers were surprised to find that all three treatments delivered essentially equal results.

Treating depression with exercise was just as effective as medication, and vice versa. Furthermore, combining the two treatments yielded the same success rate as doing either one individually.

But then the researchers decided to track the long-term progress of each patient, and this is where the study gets really interesting.

Exercise and Depression: The Long-Term Impacts

After 16 weeks of treatment, there were 83 patients (spread evenly across all three groups) that were declared in remission and free from depression.

The researchers decided to let these patients spend the next six months without receiving any treatment from professionals. The patients were welcome to continue their treatment on their own or to try something new entirely.

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When the researchers followed up with the patients six months later, here’s what they found:

  • In the medication-only group, 38% of patients relapsed into depression.
  • In the exercise and medication group, 31% of patients relapsed into depression.
  • In the exercise-only group, only 8% of patients relapsed into depression.

You can see the results of the study in the graph below. Notice that over 85% of patients in the exercise-only group remained depression free after six months on their own.

exercise-and-depression

    What made the difference?

    Why Exercise Outperformed Medication

    Dr. Blumenthal and his colleagues described the differences between exercise and medication like this:

    “One of the positive psychological benefits of systematic exercise is the development of a sense of personal mastery and positive self-regard, which we believe is likely to play some role in the depression-reducing effects of exercise.”

    In other words, exercise confirms your new identity to yourself. It changes the type of person that you believe that you are and proves that you can become better. (I’ve previously written that the self-confidence that comes with exercise is one of the biggest benefits of weight training.)

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    This philosophy directly aligns with our community’s focus on identity-based habits. It doesn’t matter if you’re battling depression, working to lose weight, or trying to create work that matters. Your identity — the type of person that you believe that you are — is what dictates how far you’ll go in any endeavor.

    When it comes to beating depression over the long-term, this is what makes exercise more powerful than medication. It’s not that medication doesn’t work — it does. But exercise does something that medication doesn’t. It proves a new identity to yourself. Each time you finish a workout, you reap the benefits of an increased sense of self-confidence. The cumulative impact of these “small wins” is enormous.

    In the words of the researchers, patients who only used medication had the following internal thoughts:

    “Instead of incorporating the belief ‘I was dedicated and worked hard with the exercise program; it wasn’t easy, but I beat this depression,’ patients might incorporate the belief that ‘I took an antidepressant and got better.'”

    It seems small, but this subtle shift in empowerment and self-confidence is huge. It’s your identity that carries you to success.

    • If you believe that you’re the type of person who doesn’t miss workouts, then you’re going to get in great shape.
    • If you believe that you’re the type of person who overcomes uncertainty, then you’ll succeed when you face a challenge.
    • If you believe that you’re the type of person who puts others first, then you’ll live a life of service.

    But no matter what, it’s your identity that carries you to long-term success. And this is where medication falls short. It treats your symptoms, but doesn’t rebuild your identity.

    Cut Your Risk of Depression by Half

    As the researchers sorted through the data, they discovered that for every 50 minutes of exercise added each week, the rate of depression fell by half. In other words, if you’re not exercising right now, then adding just one hour of walking per week will cut your risk of depression by 50%.

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    The same holds true if you’re already an exerciser. Let’s say that right now you exercise for 5 hours each week. Bumping it up to 6 hours will cut your personal risk of depression by half.

    I’m sure there is an upper limit to this at some point, but the evidence is clear: exercise often and it’s more likely that you’ll enjoy the rest of your life.

    How You Can Apply This To Your Life

    If you’re struggling with depression, then the application of this article should be obvious. (And if you know someone battling with depression, then please share this research with them. It might help them turn the corner.)

    But even if you consider yourself to be a happy person, the principle of proving your identity to yourself can apply to virtually any goal you want to achieve.

    Pick a daily habit that will strengthen your sense of self-worth and solidify your identity. For example, you could try meditation, exercise, writing, or creating art.

    Whatever you choose, pick it now, start small, and begin proving to yourself that you can become the type of person you want to become. Tiny habits, when repeated consistently, can be the difference between success or failure, confidence or doubt, and even happiness or depression.

    This article was originally published on JamesClear.com.

    Featured photo credit: D. Sinclair Terrasidius via flickr.com

    More by this author

    James Clear

    James Clear is the author of Atomic Habits. He shares self-improvement tips based on proven scientific research.

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    Last Updated on July 28, 2020

    14 Low GI Foods for a Healthier Diet

    14 Low GI Foods for a Healthier Diet

    Diet trends may come and go, but a low-GI diet remains one of the few that has been shown to include benefits based on science. Low GI foods provide substantial health benefits over those with a high index, and they are key to maintaining a healthy weight.

    What is GI? Glycemic index (GI) is the rate at which the carbohydrate content of a food is broken down into glucose and absorbed from the gut into the blood. When you eat foods containing carbohydrates, your body breaks them down into glucose, which is then absorbed into your bloodstream.[1]

    The higher the GI of a food, the faster it will be broken down and cause your blood glucose (sugar) to rise. Foods with a high GI rating are digested very quickly and cause your blood sugar to spike. This is why it’s advisable to stick to low GI foods as much as possible, as the carbohydrate content of low GI foods will be digested slowly, allowing a more gradual rise in blood glucose levels.

    Foods with a GI scale rating of 70 or more are considered to be high GI. Foods with a rating of 55 or below are considered low GI foods.

    It’s important to note that the glycemic index of a food doesn’t factor in the quantity that you eat. For example, although watermelon has a high glycemic index, the water and fiber content of a standard serving of water means it won’t have a significant impact on your blood sugar.

    Like watermelon, some high GI foods (such as baked potatoes) are high in nutrients. And some low GI foods (such as corn chips) contain high amounts of trans fats.

    In most cases, however, the GI is an important means of gauging the right foods for a healthy diet.

    Eating mainly low GI foods every day helps to provide your body with a slow, continuous supply of energy. The carbohydrates in low GI foods is digested slowly, so you feel satisfied for longer. This means you’ll be less likely to suffer from fluctuating sugar levels that can lead to cravings and snacking.

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    Let’s continue with some of the best examples of low GI foods.

    1. Quinoa

    GI: 53

    Quinoa has a slightly higher GI than rice or barley, but it contains a much higher proportion of protein. If you don’t get enough protein from the rest of your diet, quinoa could help. It’s technically a seed, so it’s also high in fiber–again, more than most grains. It’s also gluten-free, which makes it excellent for those with Celiac disease or gluten intolerance.

    2. Brown Rice (Steamed)

    GI: 50

    Versatile and satisfying, brown rice is one of the best low GI foods and is a staple for many dishes around the world. It’s whole rice from which only the husk (the outermost layer) is removed, so it’s a great source of fiber. In fact, brown rice has been shown to help lower cholesterol, improve digestive function, promote fullness, and may even help prevent the formation of blood clots. Just remember to always choose brown over white!

    3. Corn on the Cob

    GI: 48

    Although it tastes sweet, corn on the cob is a good source of slow-burning energy (and one of the tastiest low GI foods). It’s also a good plant source of Vitamin B12, folic acid, and iron, all of which are required for the healthy production of red blood cells in the body. It’s healthiest when eaten without butter and salt!

    4. Bananas

    GI: 47

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    Bananas are a superfood in many ways. They’re rich in potassium and manganese and contain a good amount of vitamin C. Their low GI rating means they’re great for replenishing your fuel stores after a workout.

    They are easy to add to smoothies, cereal, or kept on your desk for a quick snack. The less ripe they are, the lower the sugar content is! As one of the best low GI foods, it’s a great addition to any daily diet.

    5. Bran Cereal

    GI: 43

    Bran is famous for being one of the highest cereal sources of fiber. It’s also rich in a huge range of nutrients: calcium, folic acid, iron, magnesium, and a host of B vitamins. Although bran may not be to everyone’s tastes, it can easily be added to other cereals to boost the fiber content and lower the overall GI rating.

    6. Natural Muesli

    GI: 40

    Muesli–when made with unsweetened rolled oats, nuts, dried fruit, and other sugar-free ingredients–is one of the healthiest ways to start the day. It’s also very easy to make at home with a variety of other low GI foods. Add yogurt and fresh fruit for a nourishing, energy-packed breakfast.

    7. Apples

    GI: 40

    Apple skin is a great source of pectin, an important prebiotic that helps to feed the good bacteria in your gut. Apples are also high in polyphenols, which function as antioxidants, and contain a good amount of vitamin C. They are best eaten raw with the skin on! Apples are one of a number of fruits[2] that have a low glycemic index. Be careful which fruits you choose, as many have a large amount of natural sugars[3].

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    8. Apricots

    GI: 30

    Apricots provide both fiber and potassium, which make them an ideal snack for both athletes and anyone trying to keep sugar cravings at bay. They’re also a source of antioxidants and a range of minerals.

    Apricots can be added to salads, cereals, or eaten as part of a healthy mix with nuts at any time of the day.

    9. Kidney Beans

    GI: 29

    Kidney beans and other legumes provide a substantial serving of plant-based protein, so they can be used in lots of vegetarian dishes if you’re looking to adopt a plant-based diet[4]. They’re also packed with fiber and a variety of minerals, vitamins, antioxidants, and other beneficial plant compounds. They are great in soups, stews, or with (whole grain) tacos.

    10. Barley

    GI: 22

    Barley is a cereal grain that can be eaten in lots of ways. It’s an excellent source of B vitamins, including niacin, thiamin, and pyridoxine (vitamin B-6), fiber, molybdenum, manganese, and selenium. It also contains beta-glucans, a type of fiber that can support gut health and has been shown to reduce appetite and food intake.

    Please note that barley does contain gluten, which makes it unsuitable for anyone who is Celiac[5] or who follows a gluten-free diet. In this case, gluten-free alternatives might include quinoa, buckwheat, or millet.

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    11. Raw Nuts

    GI: 20

    Most nuts have a low GI of between 0 and 20, with cashews slightly higher at around 22. Nuts, as one of the best low GI foods, are a crucial part of the Mediterranean diet[6] and are really the perfect snack: they’re a source of plant-based protein, high in fiber, and contain healthy fats. Add them to smoothies and salads to boost the nutritional content. Try to avoid roasted and salted nuts, as these are made with large amounts of added salt and (usually) trans fats.

    12. Carrots

    GI: 16

    Raw carrots are not only a delicious low GI vegetable, but they really do help your vision! They contain vitamin A (beta carotene) and a host of antioxidants. They’re also low-calorie and high in fiber, and they contain good amounts of vitamin K1, potassium, and antioxidants. Carrots are great for those monitoring their weight as they’ve been linked to lower cholesterol levels.

    13. Greek Yogurt

    GI: 12

    Unsweetened Greek yogurt is not only low GI, but it’s an excellent source of calcium and probiotics, as well. Probiotics help to keep your gut microbiome in balance and support your overall digestive health and immune function. Greek yogurt makes a healthy breakfast, snack, dessert, or a replacement for dip. The most common probiotic strains found in yogurt are Streptococcus thermophilus[7] (found naturally in yogurt) and Lactobacillus acidophilus[8] (which is often added by the manufacturer). You can also look into probiotic supplements for improving your gut health.

    14. Hummus

    GI: 6

    When made the traditional way from chickpeas and tahini, hummus is a fantastic, low-GI dish. It’s a staple in many Middle Eastern countries and can be eaten with almost any savory meal. Full of fiber to maintain satiety and feed your good gut bacteria, hummus is great paired with freshly-chopped vegetables, such as carrots and celery.

    Bottom Line

    If you’re looking to eat healthier or simply cut down on snacking throughout the day, eating low GI foods is a great way to get started. Choose any of the above foods for a healthy addition to your daily diet and start feeling better for longer.

    More Tips on Eating Healthy

    Featured photo credit: Alexander Mils via unsplash.com

    Reference

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