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Mood Medicine: Fighting Depression with Exercise

By Elizabeth Boskey, Ph.D. M.P.H. C.H.E.S.

Study after study has shown that gay and bisexual men are more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety than their heterosexual peers. This, in all likelihood, has nothing to do with their sexual orientation and everything to do with society's response to that orientation. Social stress is a major risk factor for both depression and anxiety and, no matter how much things have improved, being a gay man in much of the world can be very stressful indeed.

One national study of depression in men who have sex with men found that 17.1 percent of their sample showed signs of clinical depression, more than four times higher than the average depression rate in the U.S. Numerous factors influence the likelihood of depression including, unsurprisingly, feelings of community alienation and whether or not a man has experienced multiple episodes of anti-gay violence or harassment in the last five years. Interestingly, a lack of identification as gay, queer, or homosexual also affected the probability that men in the study were depressed. Self-acceptance seems to truly be an important part of having a happy life.

Nature's Antidepressant—Heart-Thumping Exercise
If depression is a natural part of life, then is there a natural way of dealing with it? No one likes to be depressed, but for some people the treatment can be more frightening than the problem. Although antidepressants have been shown to be relatively safe and effective, some people find the concept of putting mood-altering drugs into their body to be worse than the prospect of staying depressed. Still others are willing to try using the drugs, but find the side effects—such as a compromised libido—more unpleasant than their moods. Fortunately, there are options you can try in lieu of or in addition to taking doctor-prescribed antidepressants. Depending on the cause of your depression, the treatment could be as straightforward as getting some regular exercise.

Numerous studies have shown that exercise can be an effective way to deal with depression and anxiety. Although it may not be the first choice for individuals suffering from severe or profoundly debilitating depression, exercise is unlikely to do a depressed person harm, and can potentially do them a world of good. Furthermore, exercise is a great addition to any mental health therapy regimen. It has been shown to improve the effects of other treatments even for individuals with severe disease.

Defeat Your Inner Hermit—Exercise's Social Benefits
Regular exercise doesn't just give you more energy and make you feel better about your body. It also provides an opportunity for positive social interaction—whether at the gym or with a team. Many studies have shown that this type of social interaction can significantly improve one's mood. People who exercise regularly also tend to get positive feedback from their friends and family, which can contribute to making them feel better about themselves and help fight depression. Finally—and this is particularly true for gay men—going to the gym can help a person build stronger ties to the other people in their community, and community support is one of the best antidotes to the anxiety and depression caused by social stress.

It's in the Brain—Exercise's Biological Benefits
Lest you think that the mental benefits caused by exercise are all indirect, it is important to know that exercise also has observable biological effects on the brain. Exercise has been shown to affect the same brain chemicals that are targeted by antidepressants, and it may have other beneficial mental effects as well. Some scientists believe that major depressive disorder is caused by a lack of cell growth in certain areas of the adult brain. In animal studies, exercise has been shown to stimulate the neurons in these areas to copy themselves, and its effects are similar to those of antidepressants and electro-convulsive therapy. In other words, working out doesn't only make your muscles bigger; it may actually increase the size of your brain!

Moderate levels of aerobic exercise seem to be the body's "drug of choice" for dealing with depression. So, when you're feeling down, head to the gym to spend some time on the exercise bikes, or grab a friend and go for a run. Get your body moving fast enough to distract yourself from how you're feeling, and maybe you'll get so involved in the activity that you'll forget why you began.

If depression is a regular part of your life, then exercise should be too. However, it can be hard enough for a happy person to motivate themselves to exercise regularly, so don't hesitate to ask a friend to help keep you on top of your game. Make a standing appointment to go jogging three times a week, or book a regular time on the tennis court. And, of course, if you are frequently or severely depressed, don't just jog down the street—run to your doctor for a full diagnosis.

Sources

  1. Cochran, S.D. et al (2003) " Prevalence of Mental Disorders, Psychological Distress, and Mental Health Services Use Among Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Adults in the United States." Journal of Consulting and Clinical 71(1): 53-61.
  2. Ernst, C. et al. (2006) "Antidepressant effects of exercise: Evidence for an adult-neurogenesis hypothesis?" Journal of Psychiatry & Neuroscience 31(2): 84–92.
  3. Landers, D.M. "The Influence of Exercise on Mental Health" (Accessed 1/30/07)
  4. Lawlor, D.A. & Hopker, S.W. (2001) "The effectiveness of exercise as an intervention in the management of depression: systematic review and meta-regression analysis of randomised controlled trials" British Medical Journal 322: 763-7.
  5. Mills, T.C, et al (2004) "Distress and Depression in Men Who Have Sex With Men: The Urban Men’s Health Study" American Journal of Psychiatry 161: 278–285.