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The Magic Drug for Depression and Anxiety? Exercise


Two new studies released recently have highlighted the positive influence that exercise can have in lifting depression and quelling anxiety. Researchers encourage mental health providers to begin prescribing exercise in addition to other standard therapies of medication and therapy.

The first study, published in the Archives of Internal Medicine in February, found that in physically inactive patients with chronic health conditions such as heart disease or arthritis, exercise training may significantly reduce anxiety. The research, from the University of Georgia in Athens, found that sessions of at least 30 minutes a day had lasting effects on the participants.

In the second study, Jasper Smits, director of the Anxiety Research and Treatment Program at Southern Methodist University in Dallas and Michael Otto, psychology professor at Boston University, analyzed dozens of studies and meta-analytic reviews related to exercise and mental health. Individuals who exercise reported fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression and lower levels of stress and anger.

Exercise affects certain neurotransmitters systems in the brain and can re-establish positive behaviors which may have been put aside. It can also reduce the fear and physical symptoms of anxiety.
Because the standard treatments of cognitive behavioral therapy and pharmacotherapy (medications such as anti-depressants), do not reach everyone who needs them, all physicians should encourage those who can to perform daily exercise to help ease the symptoms of depression and/or anxiety.

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"Exercise can fill the gap for people who can't receive traditional therapies because of cost or lack of access, or who don't want to because of the perceived social stigma associated with these treatments," says Smits. "Exercise also can supplement traditional treatments, helping patients become more focused and engaged." The research suggests that patients work up to 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise a week for mental health benefits.

Smits emphasizes that the benefits are seen immediately for those who suffer from depression and anxiety. "After just 25 minutes, your mood improves, you are less stressed, you have more energy - and you'll be motivated to exercise again tomorrow. A bad mood is no longer a barrier to exercise; it is the very reason to exercise."

Depression and anxiety can either occur together or separately. Depression is a serious medical condition that can potentially affect every part of a person’s life, such as the physical body, mood, thoughts, and eating and sleeping patterns. It is not a “case of the blues” and it does not relate to a specific situation, such as grief or sadness. Anxiety in itself is not harmful – it is a normal reaction to stress. However, when anxiety becomes and “excessive, irrational dread of everyday situations”, it can be disabling.

There are five major types of anxiety. Generalized Anxiety (GAD) is characterized by chronic anxiety, exaggerated worry and tension, even when there is nothing to provoke it. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is characterized by recurrent and unwanted thoughts and/or repetitive behaviors. Panic disorder is the unexpected and repeated episode of intense fear that is accompanied by physical symptoms, such as chest pain, heart palpitations, shortness of breath or abdominal distress. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety that can develop after a terrifying event in which grave physical harm occurred or was threatened, such as disasters, accidents, or military combat. Social Anxiety Disorder is the overwhelming feeling of anxiety and excessive self-consciousness in everyday social situations.

The researchers presented their findings March 6 in Baltimore at the annual conference of the Anxiety Disorder Association of America. Their workshop was based on their therapist guide "Exercise for Mood and Anxiety Disorders," with accompanying patient workbook (Oxford University Press, September 2009).