Exercise or Medicine

by Dr. Benita Zahn

When I was a child and the world seemed overwhelming, my mom would advise me to leave the house and go for a bike ride. This served two purposes: it gave her some peace and also lifted my mood. While she may not have fully recognized the emotional change that biking triggered, I certainly did as the years passed.

Fast forward about 20 years, and I added running to my routine. It became much more convenient to slip on my running shoes and head out for a quick run, as opposed to getting on the bike and finding a route that avoided heavy traffic. I sensed that there was something significant about the emotional benefits of experiencing an endorphin-inducing run. In fact, I've often told my husband that I'm in trouble when I can't run ENOUGH miles. In such instances, I find myself reassessing what's happening in my life.

I don't want to make this sound too simplistic but the research is clear, exercise boosts our mood like anti-depressant medicines. The research goes back more than a decade but only recently has it been getting the press it deserves.

While reviewing an article published by the National Institute of Health in 2017, I encountered this piece: "Is the Comparison between Exercise and Pharmacologic Treatment of Depression in the Clinical Practice Guideline of the American College of Physicians Evidence-Based?" The researchers affirmatively conclude, but the integration of exercise into treatment plans has been sluggishly embraced. The article proposes a possible reason: "Perhaps, there is a hesitation to acknowledge that lifestyle changes, rather than pharmacological treatments, can impact biological mechanisms." This could explain the reluctance of physicians to recommend exercise for patients dealing with depression.

Runner giving a thumbs up and enjoying the nice weather on New Year's Day during Winter Series 2!

Let's be clear, there is no one size fits all when it comes to treating depression and for some medication is clearly recommended. But that doesn't mean exercise can't be a complementary treatment. After all there's no co-pay, no prescription needed and unless you have some underlying health condition limiting activity, it doesn't interfere with any other treatments.

Back to the research. A study published in the BJM Sports Medicine journal in November 2023 was a review of more than 100 other studies. Bottom line finding: that physical activity is 1.5 times more effective at reducing mild-to-moderate symptoms of depression, psychological stress and anxiety than medication or cognitive behavior therapy, according to the study’s lead author. While all exercise showed a benefit shorter, high intensity programs yielded the most benefit. The people studied for this research included a "wide range of adult populations, including the general population, people with diagnosed mental health disorders and people with chronic disease."

Interestingly The study found that briefer exercise programs provide more benefits than extended regimens. The benefits of physical activity interventions diminished with longer-duration programs. This is actually a positive finding for those who don't have all day to work out or run or bike. In fact, other research finds the so-called exercise snacks, that involve elevating your heart rate for 2 minutes, provide a cardiovascular benefit. The goal is to snack 7 times a day. Add that to the exercise / mental health research and you may be able to craft your own prescription for elevating your mood.

Guess my mom was right about something.

For more info on this you can check out a well-crafted article at https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/is-exercise-more-effective-than-medication-for-depression-and-anxiety#A-worldwide-problem

BenitaLogo.pngAbout Dr. Benita Zahn

Benita is a certified Health and Wellness Coach working with clients at Capital Cardiology Associates. Benita spent more than 40 years as a health reporter and news anchor at WNYT in Albany, NY. She covered issues such as wellness, treatment breakthroughs, aging, nutrition, and the latest health care trends. Benita’s work has taken her around the world and across the USA.  Benita is a contributor to the weekly “Live Smart” page in the Times Union, the HMRRC Pace Setter and the new magazine 55+LIVING. Benita also created and co-hosts the podcast EVERYTHING THEATER.

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