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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

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    Last Updated on May 21, 2019

    13 Bad Habits You Need to Quit Right Away

    13 Bad Habits You Need to Quit Right Away

    Creating your productivity ritual — a routine that helps you to maintain a peak level of energy can get you the best out of your days.

    Part of creating your productivity routine involves removing activities that drain you (what I call “kryptonites”), and that includes your bad habits.

    Like it or not, bad habits are bad for you — mentally, physically, emotionally and even socially in some cases. While some bad habits are harder to quit than others, it doesn’t change the fact that you need to get rid of them. Here are 13 bad habits to quit right away:

    1. Stress Eating

    I used to be a serious stress eater. I would eat whenever I felt unhappy, stressed, disappointed, anxious, or even… happy! My eating had nothing to do with being hungry, and everything to do with using food to fill my emotional voids.

    While eating would comfort me, this feeling was momentary and would disappear right after I was done eating. Instead, what I had left would be the same emotional void that triggered me to eat in the first place (be it unhappiness or stress), a 2,000 excess calorie intake over what I should have eaten for the day, and anger at myself for having stress ate.

    I’ve since overcome stress eating. I have healthy eating habits and a healthy relationship with food today where I no longer use food as a tool to fill my emotions.

    If you are a stress eater, don’t fret — here’s how to manage your stress better:

    How to Manage Stress (A Step-by-Step Guide to Turn Stress Into Success)

    2. Nail Biting

    Not only is nail biting unhygienic, it is also socially repelling, leads to dental problems like malocclusion of the anterior teeth,[1] potentially cause stomach problems,[2] and lead to severely deformed fingernails in the long run.

    People who bite their nails tend to have shorter nails than the average person; their nail plates also experience scarring and may eventually become absent.[3]

    Understand what triggers your nail biting behavior and replace it with another neutral to positive habit. Make habits to break habits.

    For example, if you bite your nails when you are stressed, go for a walk or listen to music instead the next time you feel stressed.

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    3. Hanging out with Naysayers

    We all know these people — people who play devil’s advocate to every idea you have and every goal you want to pursue. We are already our greatest self-critics, so it doesn’t help when there’s someone beside us, ever ready to pounce on what we say and tear it down.

    Hang out less with these naysayers and spend more time with supportive people who share constructive feedback instead. You will be much happier this way.

    Learn how to get rid of naysayers with these 10 Ways to Ignore the Naysayers and Achieve Your Dreams.

    4. Being with People Who Don’t Appreciate You

    Haven’t all of us been in this situation before? Trying to please people who don’t appreciate us? Bending over backwards to be there for people when they are never there for us?

    While we give without expectations of return, we need to draw a line with people who don’t value us because these people damage our souls.

    Stop spending time with people who don’t appreciate you, and spend more time with people who do instead.

    Unsure who you should get rid of? Learn about it here: 5 Kinds of Toxic People That You Need to Get Rid of Now

    5. Smoking

    Smoking is one of the leading causes of preventable death globally.[4]

    In just the United States alone, about 500,000 deaths are attributed to smoking-related diseases annually. A recent study estimated that as much as one-third of China’s male population will have significantly shortened life-spans due to smoking! Gender-wise, male and female smokers lose an average of 13.2 and 14.5 years of life respectively — that’s over a decade of life right there.[5]

    Not only that, smoking causes pre-mature skin aging (i.e. wrinkles), yellowing of teeth, bad breath, and worse of all — jeopardy of the health of people around you, including your loved ones. Studies have shown that non-smokers exposed to second-hand smoke are at risk to many of the health problems associated with direct smoking.[6]

    Smoking risks

      6. Excessive Drinking

      All of us know that drinking too much alcohol is bad for us, but do you know how bad it really is?

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      According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, drinking too much — be it on a single occasion or over time — can seriously damage your health:[7]

      • Brain problems: Alcohol interferes with the brain’s communication pathways, making it harder to think clearly and move with coordination.
      • Heart diseases: Cardiomyopathy – Stretching and drooping of heart muscle, Arrhythmias – Irregular heart beat, stroke, high blood pressure
      • Liver diseases: Steatosis or fatty liver, alcoholic hepatitis, fibrosis, cirrhosis
      • Pancreas problems: Pancreatitis, a dangerous inflammation and swelling of the blood vessels in the pancreas that prevents proper digestion.
      • Different types of cancer: Mouth, esophagus, throat, liver, breast

      If you drink a lot, perhaps cutting it out right away will be tough. Cut down the number of glasses you drink each time, followed by the number of times you drink a week.

      If need be, seek help from an AA group — you aren’t alone in this. Change starts from today.

      7. Eating Junk Food (Including Diet Soda)

      Junk food — they are everywhere in our society today. From McDonald’s, to KFC, to Burger King, to 24-hour takeouts, junk food such as fries, highly processed burgers and sodas has become a staple in our society today.

      If you think, “Hey, but junk food is tasty!”, think again:

      A study by Paul Johnson and Paul Kenny suggests that junk food consumption alters brain activity in a way similar to addictive drugs like cocaine and heroin.[8]

      “After many weeks with unlimited access to junk food, the pleasure centers of rat brains became desensitized, requiring more food for pleasure.”

      And you wonder why you seem to crave fast food when you just had some the day before?

      While it may not be possible to remove junk food completely from our diet right away, we can reduce our junk food consumption starting today. Instead of soda, opt for a fruit juice (fresh juice, not the carbonated kind) or mineral water. Instead of fries, switch to mashed potato, a salad, or rice (many food outlets allow for this today). Instead of a fried meat patty, go for a grilled one.

      Where possible, opt for healthy food joints like salad bars and delis as opposed to fast food outlets. Every little step goes a long way.

      Here’re some healthy snacks ideas for you: 15 Healthy Snacks You Should Always Have At Home

      8. Eating Too Much Red Meat

      There has been conclusive evidence that consumption of red meat increases the risk of colorectal cancer; and suggestive evidence that it increases the risk of oesophageal cancer, lung cancer, pancreatic cancer, and endometrial cancer.

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      In addition, some studies have linked consumption of large quantities of red meat with breast cancer, stomach cancer, lymphoma, bladder cancer, lung cancer and prostate cancer![9]

      Personally, I’m a vegetarian so I don’t consume red meat, but for those of you who consume red meat, do watch out and limit your intake — better still, cut it out of your diet. World Cancer Research Fund recommends limiting intake of red meat to less than 300g (11 oz) cooked weight per week, “very little, if any of which to be processed.”

      Of if you’re thinking about becoming a vegetarian, check out this guide: 5 Practical Tips For Starting a Vegetarian Lifestyle

      9. Watching Too Much TV

      I stopped watching TV since eight years ago and I have never regretted it. Every once in a while I will switch on the telly to see what is on, and then I will switch it off because it’s just the same boring shtick over and over again.

      Watching TV, particularly well-written dramas, can be a good way to unwind. However, remember that TV isn’t your life.

      Spending three hours every night watching TV will not change your life for the better. Rather, using that time to reflect on your life, take stock, and take action on your goals will.

      It’s not easy to remove TV from your daily routine right away, but follow these 6 Steps To Remove TV From Your Life.

      10. Being Late

      Not only is being late being rude to others, it also means that you’re always rushing from one place to another, playing catch up in your agenda, and having to apologize to every person you meet.

      Stop being late and not being punctual, but practice being early instead. Target to arrive 15 minutes earlier before any appointment and bring along something to do in those 15 minutes (or longer if the other person turns out to be late). Then you can stop playing catch up and stay ahead in life.

      Learn more tips about how to be more punctual here: How to Be On Time Every Time

      11. Being in Bad Relationships

      Are you always dating the wrong guys/girls? Do you end up with jerks all the time? Well, you may not be able to stop yourself from meeting bad partners but you can certainly stop yourself from furthering contact with them, spending time with them, or even… entering into a relationship with them.

      I used to invest myself in this guy who was nothing but toxic for me. After a good five months of experiencing nothing but getting burned over and over again, I realized that he was a total waste of my time and I deserved better. I decided to cut him off, and it was soon after that I met my soulmate.

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      Learn about why you shouldn’t stay in a bad relationship and how to deal with it if you’re in one: Why Trying Hard to Stay in an Unhappy Relationship Is Not Love, but Fear

      12. Leaving Things to the Last Minute

      Burning the midnight oil isn’t fun — it’s exhausting.

      Those of you who got through college by burning the midnight oil would have learned this the hard way. Not only is it damaging for your body, it is also mentally draining as you’re constantly in a hyper-tense mode, feeling anxious about whether you can finish your work on time.

      Start today on a new note. Rather than react to your deadlines, be proactive about them by planning ahead, identifying what needs to be done for the week, and getting things done in advance.

      By staying ahead of your tasks, you can also use your extra time to plan ahead in your life and get more things done.

      Take a look at this guide and learn how to stop procrastinating: Procrastination – A Step-By-Step Guide to Stop Procrastinating

      13. Focusing on the Negatives

      In every situation, there are two ways you can react: zoom down to the problem areas and crib about how things aren’t the way you want, or celebrate the areas that are going well and work on making everything better.

      Many of us see the importance of doing the latter but in practice, we do the former. Why though? Criticizing and focusing on the negatives is easy but it doesn’t empower nor inspire us to be better.

      Make a change — for every negative encounter you run into, I challenge you to identify three things that are good about it. Practice doing this for one week, and by the end of the week you’ll find that your first instinct is to think positive, not negative.

      And here’re even more ways to help you stay positive: 11 Tips for Maintaining your Positive Attitude

      The Bottom Line

      So here you find the 13 most common bad habits and their consequences on your mind and body. The good news’ you can quit them all.

      Just spot out your own bad habits and take my suggestions to quit them. Then you’ll find your life a lot healthier and happier!

      Need more tips to break your bad habits? Check out these articles:

      Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

      Reference

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