Take a Happy Pill

Exercise For Good Mental Health

While we may be tempted to think that a “happy pill” is indeed a little magic pill that takes us from mad to glad in about 20 minutes, the happy pill we’re talking about isn’t a pill at all. It’s a method of generating chemicals within the brain that induce a feeling of well-being without taking pharmaceuticals. It’s safe, non-toxic, and in many cases it works as well as any drug out there. The happy pill is…exercise.

An Important Piece of Research

Back in 1999 James A. Blumenthal, Ph.D., and some of his colleagues conducted a research project on 156 older adults who were diagnosed with major depression. They were split into groups that were assigned to receive Zoloft (an antidepressant), complete 30 minutes of exercise three times a week, or do both (take Zoloft and exercise). What they discovered was that regular exercise is an effective antidepressant and works as well as drugs in treating patients with major depression. Dr. Blumenthal stated at that time that, “Our findings suggest that a modest exercise program is an effective, robust treatment for patients with major depression who are positively inclined to participate in it. The benefits of exercise are likely to endure particularly among those who adopt it as a regular, ongoing life activity.”

A Year Later…

A year later a follow-up study was released by Dr. Blumenthal and his team of researchers. They continued to follow the same research subjects for another six months and discovered that the group who exercised but did not use the drug Zoloft had better results than either of the other two groups. Additionally, an interesting finding came out of the follow-up research. The group that engaged in exercise and took Zoloft was more likely than the group that only exercised to become depressed. When speculating as to why this would be so, Blumenthal said, “It is conceivable that the concurrent use of medication may undermine the psychological benefits of exercise by prioritizing an alternative, less self-confirming attribution for one’s improved condition.” He speculated that subjects may have embraced the belief that, “I took an antidepressant and got better” instead of incorporating the belief, “I was dedicated and worked hard with the exercise program; it wasn’t easy, but I beat this depression.”

How Exercise Benefits

The way that exercise may help address depression and also anxiety lies in the fact that exercise does produce endorphins, the naturally-occurring mood enhances created in our bodies. It also alters the circulation of neurotransmitters in much the same way as antidepressants do. Exercise provides a distraction from everyday stresses and, if kept up regularly, can provide a way to immunize you against negative stress. When you exercise with other people, you develop a social network of support and a sense of community. Exercise brings you back in touch with your body and tends to improve body image. Setting, building and achieving goals are inherent in exercise programs, helping to keep the mind focused on success.

Sticking with It for Your Own Mental Health

Being sedentary and inactive seems to go hand-in-hand with depression. Knowing whether depression makes an individual sedentary or whether a sedentary person is more prone to depression is a type of “the chicken or the egg” quandary. What is important to note is that a person has to be motivated to maintain an exercise program of any sort. This isn’t an easy task for a person who is suffering with major depression or anxiety attacks. Having someone to be accountable to, like a buddy or trainer, is often necessary until the exercise habit is established and the person is in the swing of exercising regularly. For the person who can’t bear the idea of exercise, walking, gardening, and even doing household chores are good activities to generate endorphins.

What we do know is that there are definitely health benefits to exercise that are well-proven. Disease prevention and improved quality of life are just two of the great physical benefits, and now we can add better mental health to the list.

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