Health Can you literally run away from depression? Research suggests exercise could be the key to beating the blues.
Depression on the run
Can you literally run away from depression? As the weather cools down, you might be thinking about digging out your running shoes again. But as well as making you more fit, running could have psychological benefits. Going for a run makes you more energetic and burns off the calories, but it is increasingly being seen as an effective way to treat the blues as well. Experts say this is because exercise releases feel-good brain chemicals - endorphins - which block pain and relieve the feelings of isolation which fuel mental illness.
Endorphins were discovered in the 1970s when scientists were researching addiction. They found that the brain manufactures chemicals that are more potent than morphine or heroin, but which share the same receptors as those drugs. These natural chemicals produced by your body are the endorphins responsible for that sense of euphoria you get after a particularly intense workout or a good run. So while millions are convinced that their sadness is caused by a chemical imbalance and they can do nothing except take pills for their faulty brain-wiring, doctors are saying: "If you feel blue, get up, put on your running shoes and go for a run. The endorphins you produce would give you the mood booster you need."
The developmental biologist and professor Lewis Wolpert has credited running for helping alleviate his own acute depression, an account of which turned into three BBC television programmes entitled A Living Hell. Oprah Winfrey, who typically runs four miles each morning, said running was the greatest metaphor for life "because you get out of it what you put into it". One in five doctors now prescribes exercise to treat depression as an alternative to drugs, a four-fold rise in three years.
And if we ever needed help for depression it is surely now. While it would be difficult to say whether there are record levels of depression, most people would agree that in the developed world there is a lot of stress, loneliness, grief, and feelings of inadequacy. It is estimated that one in four women and one in 10 men suffer from depression serious enough to need treatment at some point in their lives. The World Health Organisation estimates that by 2020, major depression will be the second biggest cause of death and disability in the world.
Depression also runs in families; if one of your parents has severe depression, you are eight times more likely to become depressed yourself. Emer O'Neill, the chief executive of Depression Alliance, a leading British charity, said that people suffering from mild depression should consider exercise, diet and some social networking such as joining a self-help group to discuss coping strategies. "We are really beginning to see the value of non-medical interventions to treat depression," she said.
"There is more and more evidence that you can help combat depression through diet, which means eating regularly throughout the day, eating plenty of fruit and vegetables and oily fish, and whole-grain cereal. "In terms of exercise we say a minimum of 30 to 45 minutes three to four times a week. It sounds like a lot if you ordinarily do none at all, but if you do a brisk 15 minute walk at lunchtime it means you have done half your day's physical exercise."
She adds: "Anti-depressants have come a long way in 20 years but some people will experience side effects like disrupted sleep and putting on weight. "People also need to know that they won't see much benefit until two weeks after they start taking them and it can take six to nine months for them to make a real difference." Verbal therapy also may help a person explore what contributed to the depression in the first place and what might be keeping the person depressed, she said.
None of these so-called psychological therapies have been proven to be "better" than another, but the most common and, currently the most fashionable, is cognitive behavioural therapy. CBT tries to address the negative thoughts by training people to argue in their mind with their inner critic and substitute it with a rational, calm, optimistic personality. Emer says there is now computer software available which allows depressed people to access help over their own computer and in private.
Entitled Blues Begone (www.bluesbegone.com), and costing around Dh720, the computerised package - which comes recommended by Depression Alliance and gives between 15 and 40 hours of CBT - talks directly to the user and calls them by name, assesses them, then adapts itself to reflect the needs of the person. Blues Begone, created by two brothers - one a psychologist, the other a computer software specialist - is designed to be used five times a week for between 20 and 30 minutes, with cartoons and animations and jokes to bring the programme to life and stop it getting dull.
Emer said: "It's a tool kit, and if you have it on your own computer you can dip in and out of it at will. In the meantime, exercise will give you that 'buzz' and when you feel that 'high' you are often able to look at other aspects of your life more positively." So while running a marathon may be the last thing you want to do when you're depressed, a light daily exercise programme - even walking for 20 minutes a day - may be very helpful in the battle with the blues.
Or, as one reader of the magazine Men's Health put it recently: "I have lived through the most utterly stressful period of my life over the last two years and I can categorically state that exercise has stopped me sliding into depression and/or a total nervous emotional breakdown."