Why Exercise Can Help Make You Happier

“The value of exercise as a treatment has been increasing documented in the last three decades. This information is timely because of the increasing rate of injury by using prescription opioid pain medications. Controlling depression decreases pain.” Bill Chesnut, MD

Why Exercise Can Help Make You Happier   by Mladen Golubic, M.D., Ph. D. Cleveland Clinic Wellness newsletter 2.24.16

Lifestyle factors — like food choices, physical activity and stress — have a profound effect on your mood and strongly influence whether or not you may develop anxiety and depression. Here’s a fact you may not know: Depression is projected to be a leading social and economic burden worldwide by 2020, second only to coronary artery disease! In fact, about 10 percent of the U.S. population suffers from depression at any point in time. Why so much depression? It is suspected that continuously increasing levels of stress are contributing to the rapid rise in depression. Increased stress hormones not only damage nerve cells, but also prevent growth of new ones in parts of the brain responsible for positive mood states. While there are effective treatments for depression, for example psychotherapy and antidepressant medications, only about a third of depression sufferers actually receive these treatments. What can be done for the remaining two-thirds? A lot.

Physical activity has been identified as an effective alternative treatment, either alone or in combination with standard therapies. In fact, the American Psychiatric Association now includes exercise in their treatment recommendations. It’s easy to understand why: Data from randomized clinical trials provide solid evidence about the benefits of both aerobic (walking, running, biking) and resistance (strength) training for those afflicted with depression. The recommended amount? Three to five exercise sessions per week, of 45 to 60 minutes each. Here’s more great news: People with depressive symptoms may experience improvements within four weeks of starting an exercise routine. And if that’s not enough to convince you of the mental health benefits of exercise, consider this: While stress decreases the growth of new nerve cells that can boost your mood, exercise does the opposite. Exercise grows the brain!

While there is no doubt about the effectiveness of exercise in reducing symptoms of depression, it does take real effort to begin and maintain an exercise routine. To be successful, find an exercise that you love to do. Many people enjoy walking, which has several health benefits if you reach 10,000 steps a day. If you begin to lose interest in your routine, change it up. Take a new fitness class, start dancing, begin a yoga practice or take bike rides with friends or family. And if you’re pressed for time, you may want to look into short, high-intensity workouts that do not require any equipment but use only body weight. They can be performed anywhere and can be done in as little as seven minutes a day. But high-intensity workouts are not for everyone, so please discuss this idea with your doctor before attempting it on your own. Even if your exercise frequency, intensity and duration are below the current recommendation, do not despair. Engaging in at least some physical activity may still be beneficial for patients with depression, according to the authors of the report.

If you’re not suffering from depression, you should know that exercise has numerous other health benefits, too. Regular physical activity can lower your blood pressure, improve your cholesterol profile, help control blood sugar, and reduce your risk of heart disease, diabetes and common cancers. And of course, it will help you achieve or maintain a healthy weight. What medication can do all that? Yes, you’re right. None. Such a pill does not exist and probably will not for generations to come. If it is ever created, it won’t be cheap. Exercise is free and readily available. So just do it.