For the past 6 years, I have devoted a large part of my personal training business to clients suffering with mild to moderate depression.

Referred by a growing network of mental health professionals, people who have been suffering with depression (and to a lesser extent – anxiety) have had tremendous success reducing their symptoms of depression using a very simple yet labor intensive exercise prescription.

At first, it was very difficult to get mental health professionals to consider that exercise might help where drugs & talk therapy were failing.

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But slowly, as scientific research began to catch up with common sense, exercise therapy for depression became a slightly more acceptable treatment modality.

Flash forward to 2010…and we see the director of the Anxiety Research and Treatment Program at Southern Methodist University telling his peers that “exercise has been shown to have tremendous benefits for mental health, and that the more therapists who are trained in exercise therapy, the better off patients will be.”

Speaking at the annual conference of the Anxiety Disorder Association of America, professors Jasper Smits and Michael Otto reported that “individuals who exercise report fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression, and lower levels of stress and anger. Exercise appears to affect, like an antidepressant, particular neurotransmitter systems in the brain, and it helps patients with depression re-establish positive behaviors.

For patients with anxiety disorders, exercise reduces their fears of fear and related bodily sensations such as a racing heart and rapid breathing.”

“Exercise can fill the gap for people who can’t receive traditional therapies because of cost or lack of access, or who don’t want to because of the perceived social stigma associated with these treatments,” he says. “Exercise also can supplement traditional treatments, helping patients become more focused and engaged.”

But it’s not all rainbows and sunshine.

In a world where more and more “normal” people never find the time to be active, imagine how difficult it is for a person suffering from depression to begin and continue with a new exercise program.

It’s not as simple as their doctor telling them to take a few laps around the high school running track.

Dr. Smits believes that “rather than emphasize the long-term health benefits of an exercise program – which can be difficult to sustain – we urge providers to focus with their patients on the immediate benefits,” he says. “After just 25 minutes, your mood improves, you are less stressed, you have more energy – and you’ll be motivated to exercise again tomorrow. A bad mood is no longer a barrier to exercise; it is the very reason to exercise.

Smits says health care providers who prescribe exercise also must give their patients the tools they need to succeed, such as the daily schedules, problem-solving strategies and goal-setting featured in his guide for therapists.

“Therapists can help their patients take specific, achievable steps,” he says. “This isn’t about working out five times a week for the next year. It’s about exercising for 20 or 30 minutes and feeling better today.”

In my personal, grassroots (entirely non-medical / non-scientific) opinion, that is a great start…but I would also recommend that if the patient wants to improve their odds of success, they…

  • Get the support of their family. Organize family outings that require physical activity, go for nightly walks, etc..
  • Get the support of other depression/anxiety sufferers. Organize regular exercise sessions. While everyone’s experience with depression is unique, fellow sufferers are going to “get you” in a way that your family never will. Sharing the exercise experience with them can also improve the likelihood of adherence.
  • Get the support of an exercise professional who is sensitive to your situation. For a lot of my clients who can’t afford one on one personal training, I provide training programs designed specifically for their needs.

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If you need more info, check out Drs. Smits & Otto’s book on the subject.

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