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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.

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    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 12, 2021

    100 Incredible Life Hacks That Make Life So Much Easier

    100 Incredible Life Hacks That Make Life So Much Easier

    Want to learn some quick and easy life hacks that are easy to do, low cost and saves you time?

    By tweaking little things in your daily life, it can make your life much more convenient!

    Here’re 100 of the most practical life hacks so you can just pick up any of them right away!

    83 tie a small piece of bright colored fabric

      84 write random letter

        85 use a rubberband

          86 dorm smell bad

            87 lean your phone on your sunglassess

              89 how to waterproof your shoes

                90 take a picture of the name card

                  91 iron inside out

                    92 old newspaper

                      93 tumble try shoes

                        keep a card like this

                          SONY DSC

                            94 soap bar

                              95 make a hole

                                96 drop the battery

                                  97 use a coozie

                                    98 when taking a picture

                                      use a clean dust pan

                                        try a pants hanger

                                          use your cellphone light

                                            use a spring from an old pen

                                              quick and easy iphone speaker

                                                user binder clips

                                                  wrap a wet paper towel around your beverage

                                                    put pancake mix in a ketchup bottle

                                                      clean out an old lotion bottle for your beach

                                                        use a muffin tin to serve condiments at a bbq

                                                          doritos are great for kindling

                                                            use nail polish to identify different keys

                                                              use a hanging shoe rack to store cleaning supplies

                                                                freeze grapes to chill white wine without

                                                                  use paper clips to organize your cables

                                                                    almost finished your jar of nutella

                                                                      sick of having a box full of tangled

                                                                        unroll the rim to increase the capacity

                                                                          cut open toilet paper rolls and use as a cuff

                                                                            remove the stem from strawberries

                                                                              turn an old bottle into a simple little cord holder

                                                                                for iced coffee and iced cappuccino, use frozen coffee cubes

                                                                                  how to fold a fitted bed sheet

                                                                                    tired of snoozing past your alarm

                                                                                      place a rubber band around an open paint can to wipe your brush on

                                                                                        ut a wooden spoon across a boiling pot

                                                                                          use bread clips to save flip-flops

                                                                                            take pictures of friends holding items

                                                                                              how i always know which headphone is the left one

                                                                                                put a stocking over the end of a vacuum

                                                                                                  How to make sure you drink enough water

                                                                                                    user a can opener to open blister

                                                                                                      good sandwich guide

                                                                                                        turn your muffin pans upside down

                                                                                                          50 pounds of groceries and living on the 5th floor

                                                                                                            the right way to make a blt

                                                                                                              add one teaspoon of baking soda

                                                                                                                38

                                                                                                                  hair straighteners equals to collar irons

                                                                                                                    stack your clothes vertically to see them all

                                                                                                                      the right way to make cookies in the summer

                                                                                                                        how to clean a blender

                                                                                                                          the right way to eat a popsicle

                                                                                                                            use bread clips to label and organize power cords

                                                                                                                              to get the built up residue off of your shower head

                                                                                                                                user a hair clip to orgainize long wires

                                                                                                                                  a frozen saturated sponge in a bag

                                                                                                                                    rub stuck zipper teeth with a graphite pencil

                                                                                                                                      use a soda pop tab

                                                                                                                                        50

                                                                                                                                          51 How to multiply large numbers in your head.

                                                                                                                                            52 How to open a bottle if you dont have a corkscrew.

                                                                                                                                              rub a walnut on damaged wooden furniture

                                                                                                                                                kids fall out of bed

                                                                                                                                                  use toothpaste to clear up hazy car

                                                                                                                                                    58

                                                                                                                                                      59 keep pizza out while driving home

                                                                                                                                                        60 put your straw through the tab to keep it from rising

                                                                                                                                                          hold oreos with a fork so your fingers

                                                                                                                                                            Never lose your remotes again

                                                                                                                                                              hiding your emergency money

                                                                                                                                                                use a bread tab to hold your spot on a roll

                                                                                                                                                                  if you are at a hotel and run out of chargers

                                                                                                                                                                    keep a square of cardboard in a ziplock bag

                                                                                                                                                                      If you need to pee or smoke at a bar

                                                                                                                                                                        drill holes in the bottom of your garbage

                                                                                                                                                                          use an accented letter as your passcode

                                                                                                                                                                            use a squeeze ketchup bottle top with your shopvac

                                                                                                                                                                              do something unusual when locking the door

                                                                                                                                                                                when heating leftovers space out a circle in the middle

                                                                                                                                                                                  dont burn yourself in those hard to reach candles

                                                                                                                                                                                    put a small amount of water in a glass when you microwave your pizza

                                                                                                                                                                                      75 use a piece of paper to organize

                                                                                                                                                                                        use half a pool noodle

                                                                                                                                                                                          pencil case to store cables

                                                                                                                                                                                            78 clothespin to hold nail

                                                                                                                                                                                              79 make blts

                                                                                                                                                                                                80 take a picture of your fridge

                                                                                                                                                                                                  81 fill plastic water bottles

                                                                                                                                                                                                    82 right ways to eat chips

                                                                                                                                                                                                      99 if your plug keeps failing

                                                                                                                                                                                                        100 put the banana on the wire

                                                                                                                                                                                                          88 before you throw away a post it

                                                                                                                                                                                                            Source: Reddit LifeProTips

                                                                                                                                                                                                            There you go, 100 awesome life hacks that you can try right now to make your life a lot easier!

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