The benefits of exercise and good nutrition are certainly well-known. But not all of them. Not only do a balanced and consistent exercise program and healthful eating lead to a longer, higher quality life, some recent research indicates that it is also excellent for your brain and emotional state, particularly in avoiding and curing depression. It’s so excellent that it may even preclude the need for drugs.
Depressive disorders affect approximately 18.8 million American adults or about 9.5% of the U.S. population age 18 and older. Everyone will at some time in his or her life be affected by depression — their own or someone else’s, according to Australian Government statistics. (Depression statistics in Australia are comparable to those of the US and UK.) Anti-depression medication, such as Prozac and Zoloft, are the most prescribed class of drugs in the United States today. In 2005, 115 million prescriptions were handed out.
We don’t know yet how and why these medications work, and they can be quite expensive, especially when coupled together with psychotherapy. But there seems to be a simple and inexpensive alternative. Have you ever noticed how much better you feel about life after a brisk half-hour walk? Recent studies have shown that exercise is just as effective as anti-depressants at fighting depression.
Our brains are composed of nerve cells known as neurons. The gaps between these neurons are bridged by chemical neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine, also known as the “mood” chemicals. These are the chemicals in the brain that effect alertness, vitality, tranquility and euphoria and, more importantly, stave off depression.
Exercise works to improve depression by increasing serotonin and dopamine levels in the brain. For those who must take medications, exercise in conjunction with anti-depressant drugs seems to cause the drugs to work more effectively.¹
Exercise also helps the brain in other cognitive functions. Children who engage in aerobic exercise score higher on tests. Aerobic exercise not only increases the levels of serotonin and dopamine, but also actually increases the size of your brain, particularly the hippocampus, which is the part of your brain that controls emotion. Also, it seems that exercise enhances the brain’s ability to retrieve latent memories.²
Anyone who has exercised knows how much better you feel after a session. The phrase “runner’s high” is termed so for a reason, as distance runners well know. It is difficult to ascertain exactly how much exercise we need in order to achieve these positive effects, but a good ratio to follow is 70% of the program should be cardio (aerobic), 20% strength training, and 10% flexibility training (stretching).³
Looking at the nutrition side of this equation, we know that just like poor eating can harm normal blood circulation to your heart, the same is true of the brain. The better blood flow is up to your brain, the more oxygen and nutrients are available in order to sustain itself. An eating program that is vegetable- and fruit-dense and low in trans fats and saturated fats, but includes monounsaturated healthy fats will help keep your arteries from clogging. But there’s more: Lately, vast amounts of research has been done on the effects of omega-3 oils on brain function.
A 2005 study showed that adequate nutrition is needed for many aspects of brain functioning. Poor diet quality, ever-present in the Western World, may be a modifiable risk factor for depression. Insufficient omega-3 fatty acid status particularly increases the risk of depression.
Historically, the ratio between omega-3 and omega 6 was 1:1. In today’s Western diet, the ratio is 1:10 or even as high as 1:20. There is a much lower instance of depression amongst Asians where fish consumption is higher, providing the body with greater amounts of the fatty acid.
Further, current consumption of omega-3s is about half of what it was before WWII–and it is precisely from that period that the rates of depression have gone up considerably.
A lack of omega-3 might also explain why 1-in-ten postpartum mothers experiences depression. Since omega-3 fatty acids play a major role in building the brain and maintaining its balance, these fats are the principal nourishment the fetus takes in through the placenta. Thus, the mother’s reserves, which are already low, drop dramatically in the last weeks of pregnancy, often leading to postpartum depression.
So what can we eat to get our omega-3 fill? Fatty fishes like salmon, sardines and tuna, flaxseed, canola oil and walnuts. Just watch out for over-consumption of mercury in fish, particularly tuna.
We all know that the sedentary lifestyle that’s been on the rise in the last two generations has ushered in a whole host of medical problems. It seems that this lifestyle is partly responsible for the increase of depression in the world as well. So, get off the couch and away from the computer, put on those running shoes, get outdoors and go for a walk, do some strength training and start to feel great about life!
Footnotes: Demonstrated in a recent study led by Dr. Monika Fleshner at the University of Colorado at Boulder.  According to Dr. Charles H. Hillman at the University of Illinois at Urbana.  Dr. Monika Fleshner.
Alan Freishtat is an A.C.E. certified personal trainer and a lifestyle fitness coach with over 16 years of professional experience. He is the co-director of the Jerusalem-based weight loss and stress reduction center Lose It! He can be reached at 02-651-8502 or 050-555-7175, or by email at email@example.com.