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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 November 20, 2018

    10 Reasons Why New Year’s Resolutions Fail

    10 Reasons Why New Year’s Resolutions Fail

    A new year beautifully symbolizes a new chapter opening in the book that is your life. But while so many people like you aspire to achieve ambitious goals, only 12% of you will ever experience the taste of victory. Sound bad? It is. 156 million people (that’s 156,000,000) will probably give up on their resolution before you can say “confetti.” Keep on reading to learn why New Year’s resolutions fail (and how to succeed).

    Note: Since losing weight is the most common New Year’s resolution, I chose to focus on weight loss (but these principles can be applied to just about any goal you think of — make it work for you!).

    1. You’re treating a marathon like a sprint.

    Slow and steady habit change might not be sexy, but it’s a lot more effective than the “I want it ALL and I want it NOW!” mentality. Small changes stick better because they aren’t intimidating (if you do it right, you’ll barely even notice them!).

    If you have a lot of bad habits today, the last thing you need to do is remodel your entire life overnight. Want to lose weight? Stop it with the crash diets and excessive exercise plans. Instead of following a super restrictive plan that bans anything fun, add one positive habit per week. For example, you could start with something easy like drinking more water during your first week. The following week, you could move on to eating 3 fruits and veggies every day. And the next week, you could aim to eat a fistful of protein at every meal.

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    2. You put the cart before the horse.

    “Supplementing” a crappy diet is stupid, so don’t even think about it. Focus on the actions that produce the overwhelming amount of results. If it’s not important, don’t worry about it.

    3. You don’t believe in yourself.

    A failure to act can cripple you before you leave the starting line. If you’ve tried (and failed) to set a New Year’s resolution (or several) in the past, I know it might be hard to believe in yourself. Doubt is a nagging voice in your head that will resist personal growth with every ounce of its being. The only way to defeat doubt is to believe in yourself. Who cares if you’ve failed a time or two? This year, you can try again (but better this time).

    4. Too much thinking, not enough doing.

    The best self-help book in the world can’t save you if you fail to take action. Yes, seek inspiration and knowledge, but only as much as you can realistically apply to your life. If you can put just one thing you learn from every book or article you read into practice, you’ll be on the fast track to success.

    5. You’re in too much of a hurry.

    If it was quick-and-easy, everybody would do it, so it’s in your best interest to exercise your patience muscles.

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    6. You don’t enjoy the process.

    Is it any wonder people struggle with their weight when they see eating as a chore and exercise as a dreadful bore? The best fitness plan is one that causes the least interruption to your daily life. The goal isn’t to add stress to your life, but rather to remove it.

    The best of us couldn’t bring ourselves to do something we hate consistently, so make getting in shape fun, however you’ve gotta do it. That could be participating in a sport you love, exercising with a good friend or two, joining a group exercise class so you can meet new people, or giving yourself one “free day” per week where you forget about your training plan and exercise in any way you please.

    7. You’re trying too hard.

    Unless you want to experience some nasty cravings, don’t deprive your body of pleasure. The more you tell yourself you can’t have a food, the more you’re going to want it. As long as you’re making positive choices 80-90% of the time, don’t sweat the occasional indulgence.

    8. You don’t track your progress.

    Keeping a written record of your training progress will help you sustain an “I CAN do this” attitude. All you need is a notebook and a pen. For every workout, record what exercises you do, the number of repetitions performed, and how much weight you used if applicable. Your goal? Do better next time. Improving your best performance on a regular basis offers positive feedback that will encourage you to keep going.

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    9. You have no social support.

    It can be hard to stay motivated when you feel alone. The good news? You’re not alone: far from it. Post a status on Facebook asking your friends if anybody would like to be your gym or accountability buddy. If you know a co-worker who shares your goal, try to coordinate your lunch time and go out together so you’ll be more likely to make positive decisions. Join a support group of like-minded folks on Facebook, LinkedIn, or elsewhere on the internet. Strength in numbers is powerful, so use it to your advantage.

    10. You know your what but not your why.

    The biggest reason why most New Year’s resolutions fail: you know what you want but you not why you want it.

    Yes: you want to get fit, lose weight, or be healthy… but why is your goal important to you? For example:

    Do you want to be fit so you can be a positive example that your children can admire and look up to?

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    Do you want to lose fat so you’ll feel more confident and sexy in your body than ever before?

    Do you want to be healthy so you’ll have increased clarity, energy, and focus that would carry over into every single aspect of your life?

    Whether you’re getting in shape because you want to live longer, be a good example, boost your energy, feel confident, have an excuse to buy hot new clothes, or increase your likelihood of getting laid (hey, I’m not here to judge) is up to you. Forget about any preconceived notions and be true to yourself.

    • The more specific you can make your goal,
    • The more vivid it will be in your imagination,
    • The more encouraged you’ll be,
    • The more likely it is you will succeed (because yes, you CAN do this!).

    I hope this guide to why New Year’s resolutions fail helps you achieve your goals this year. If you found this helpful, please pass it along to some friends so they can be successful just like you. What do you hope to accomplish next year?

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