Does Exercise Cure All?

Regular exercise can benefit those who suffer from depression, among other things

Does exercise cure all? Picture /

If one of your New Year resolutions was to take more exercise, you chose wisely. Evidence that working out is as good for our mind as for our body is accumulating fast.

It’s well known, for example, that regular aerobic exercise can improve both cardiovascular and insulin function. But a study by Laura Baker at the University of Washington showed that regular aerobic exercise also improves executive function - that is, our ability to pay attention, plan, organise and remember. Christian Knochel at the University of Frankfurt, meanwhile, found that working out helps to reduce the symptoms of major psychological disorders such as schizophrenia, depression and Alzheimer’s disease.

In particular, taking regular exercise can really benefit those who suffer from depression. Lynette Craft at the University of Boston looked at a number of studies comparing various treatments and found that taking regular exercise proved as helpful as a course of cognitive behavioural therapy. Exercise is also more beneficial in the longer term than taking antidepressant medication, even when that medication is combined with working out regularly. No one knows for sure why exercise alone has such a powerful effect, but I suspect there are two reasons in addition to the measurable impact on our brain chemistry. First, when individuals are encouraged to take responsibility for planning and carrying out their own treatment, rather than simply swallowing the pills they’re given, they start to feel more self-confident and capable of helping themselves get better. Furthermore, the structure that regular exercise imposes on our schedules encourages us all to feel more organised and in control.

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It’s good to know, too, that when it comes to improving mood, the type and intensity of the exercise doesn’t much matter. Both aerobic (running) and anaerobic (lifting weights) exercise have been shown to be equally effective in alleviating symptoms of depression, and the same is true for running vs walking steadily.

Although the type of exercise matters little, how often you schedule your workouts is extremely important. Individuals who exercise three or four times a week for 20 to 30 minutes each time are generally happier. The secret is to exercise little and often.

If, then, you’re having trouble maintaining motivation to exercise regularly, what can you do to keep this invaluable habit going?

First, respect your personality. Introverts will enjoy exercise more if they see it as a chance to be alone for a bit. For them, walking, jogging or swimming is best. Extroverts, on the other hand, may need some external pressure to keep going. They’re more likely to keep working out if they sign up to regular classes, and/or work out with others.
Second, give your workout the priority it deserves. Mark off exercise sessions in your diary, just as you would any other important appointment, so that nothing else can fill that time.

Third, find someone with whom you can check in regularly, a friend who is willing to encourage you to keep going, and who will praise you when you do so.

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* Linda Blair is a clinical psychologist. Her book The Key to Calm is published by Hodder & Stoughton

— The Daily Telegraph

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