The Science Behind Fitness And Depression

The Science Behind Fitness And Depression

Exercise has been linked to naturally enhancing mental health for decades

Akash Vaghela Akash Vaghela · Nov 16th, 2020

Mindset Beginner
18 Mins


    According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), ‘depression is a leading cause of disability worldwide.’ Only in recent years however has depression come into the forefront of the health agenda and is finally being recognised as a disease. Although it is estimated that 264 million people are affected internationally, many will go undiagnosed due to the attached social stigma.

    There are many different types of therapy that can aid depression, anxiety and other forms of mental health issues, such as talking therapies, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), antidepressants and other forms of medication, and even the use of CBD products.

    Each therapy method is experienced differently by individuals, while some respond well to talking therapies, others may not find solace in confiding in a professional and react better to medication. Without trying all approaches, there is no way of understanding which mode of therapy is the most effective. Of all the therapies however, these is one method that is scientifically proven to decrease depression: exercise.

    By any means, this is not new knowledge. Anyone who has sought a medical professional’s advice or who has gone through counselling with regards to a mental health issue has probably been told that getting to the gym can help improve their mood. Exercise has been linked to naturally enhancing mental health for decades and research continues to prove this trend.

    So, how can exercise help prevent depression?

    The Science Behind Fitness and Depression

    It is well documented that exercise stimulates the release of natural ‘feel good’ hormones and pain-relieving compounds in the brain, such as endorphins, dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin, all of which are integral to the elevation of mood.

    Serotonin for instance can help regulate appetite and sleep, two factors which are negatively impacted by depression and anxiety etc., and so this hormone rectifies its side effects by restoring balance. Exercise also reduces levels of the stress-depression hormone cortisol in the bloodstream.

    As well as neurological benefits, the psychological effects of exercising make a vast impact too, such as providing a distraction from worries, improving confidence, and boosting self-esteem by ‘yielding positive feelings of accomplishment and autonomy’ (American Fitness May/Jun 2000, Vol. 18 Issue 3).

    This is all backed by years of research and evidence. Psychology Today reported that: ‘After reviewing 14 studies in which exercise was used to treat people with clinical depression, researchers have found that sufferers who walked, ran or performed strength training three times a week for 20 to 60 minutes were significantly less depressed after five weeks. And when workouts were kept up, the improvements lasted until the study’s end one year later, as they reported in the journal Professional Psychology: Research and Practice.’

    This study not only suggests that exercise is directly correlated with improving mental health, but there is a distinct connection to exercise and longevity on mental health. While a miracle cure for depression won’t manifest overnight, consistency and frequency is key in long-term neurological impact.

    In this sense, exercise is a preventative and/or improvement solution, not a cure. To use an alternative analogy, if you have a permanent medical condition and you stop taking your medication, as soon as this leaves your system, the medical issue will start to flare up once again. The same goes for physical fitness and mental health. Once you stop exercising, the effects will eventually wear off. This is why consistent exercise is necessary and long-term solutions must be sought to work effectively.

    This evidence is not limited by age either, as extensive experiments have been conducted on subjects of all ages. A study conducted by Kathleen Moore, a researcher in the department of psychiatry and behavioural sciences at Duke University Medical Center, showed a correlation between exercise and depression on subjects over the age of 50. Her experiment comprised of 55 participants over the age of 50 who completed a 60-question Profile of Mood Survey (POMS) which assessed their baseline mood. The participants then walked on a treadmill for up to 14 minutes at maximum exhaustive effort before completing the survey again. The results showed that the participants experienced an 82% reduction in feelings of depression, tension, fatigue, anger and confusion. (American Fitness May/Jun 2000, Vol. 18 Issue 3, p38 4p).

    This has likewise benefitted many RNTers, specifically of a certain age where physical exercise is somewhat limited, as the simple act of walking has provided them with a manageable (and enjoyable) amount of physical exercise, much needed headspace and the mental capacity to self-reflect, therefore significantly reducing levels of stress and depression.

    The mental health and fitness correlation is not one sided, as similar surveys and experiments have found that those that are not physically active are twice as likely to show symptoms of anxiety and depression than those that do (De Mello et al., 2013.). Likewise, ‘people with a mental illness have very poor physical health parameters when compared to the general population' (Stanley, Suzanne H., Ng, Sai Moy., Laugharne, Jonathan D E., The ‘Fit for Life’ exercise programme: improving the physical health of people with a mental illness).

    Sure, regular exercise cannot cure depression, but it can help offset it. Tim Newman of Medical News Today, recognised that within an ideal scenario, mental health issues could be stopped before they can begin. Although exercise is a great preventative, it is not possible to alter some factors, such as genetics. Nevertheless, it is possible to modify some lifestyle factors, including diet and physical activity.

    Other Contributing Factors

    Certainly exercise is a fantastic (and proven) improvement solution, but it should always be part of a bigger, more effective concoction of essential protocols that can boost mental health naturally. This includes sleep, hydration, diet and structure, to name but a few. Each are effective methods of relieving stress which is a leading cause of depression and anxiety.

    However, depression is crafty and often interferes with these factors, thus inhibiting its own preventatives. Each of these preventatives fuel one another, which is why marrying all protocols is essential to combatting depression.

    For instance, exercise is known to counteract depression, but lack of motivation can be even the most enthusiastic runner’s Achilles heel. Good nutrition knowledge can help here as complex carbohydrates and protein rich foods are known to help boost mood and increase concentration. Not only that, these foods help to fuel your workouts, increasing physical and mental capacity to get the blood pumping.

    Lack of motivation and poor mood can lead to a lack of structure. This can lead into a dangerous downward mental spiral of feeling like a failure due to a lack of self-worth and purpose. This is why many that suffer with mental health issues are encouraged to find structure and routine. This helps to create a sense of accomplishment, productivity, and control.

    These elements are what essentially make up the entire CTP and process phases of the RNT transformation journey. In order to shed the skin of your old identity and change your mindset, each of these protocols must be aligned and solidified. Sleep, quality nutrition, steps and establishing structure, strategies, and systems are essential factors to facilitate a successful transformation from the inside out.

    Exercise and consistent training, while vital, are simply not enough to successfully facilitate a complete, lifelong transformation and identity shift. This is what is missing from so many quick fixes, fad diets and short-term government health campaigns.

    The RNT Client Experience

    Shriti: “We are often told the only cure to depression is medicine, but after joining RNT this was not the case. Mental pain is less dramatic than physical pain, but it is more common and also hard to bear, the frequent attempt to conceal mental pain increases the burden.

    It is so much more easier to say my head aches than to say my heart is broken. My depression has been cured, my anxiety is less, I am free from tablets and I am now a woman who feels beautiful, strong, fitter and, most of all, knows her self-worth. 

    We often hear this used the physical as a vehicle, a powerful phrase within RNT, but this phrase is powerful as I have overcome something which I never thought I could. I am cured by nutrition and fitness." 

    Taking A Step In The Right Direction

    Giving up her career to become a full-time carer for her mother for six years had taken a mental, physical, and emotional toll on Vanita. Sadly, when her mother passed away, Vanita fell into a deep depression. Struggling with her mental health and facing a variety of health concerns: she had put her self-care on the back-burner while she cared for her mother, she knew something had to change, so Vanita sought RNT to pull herself out of her struggles.

    While fitness, nutrition and structure played a key part in Vanita’s healing process, it was in walking that she found great solace. Step count is a fundamental part of the RNT Transformation Journey, and Vanita found it was her long morning walks that gave her the head space and clarity to think and process her thoughts and emotions. Sometimes she listens to podcasts or music, other times she simply enjoys the sound of her surroundings. This personal time was just what the doctor ordered.

    Vanita: “After my mum passed away, I was free falling in this dark tunnel. The loss of my mum, emotionally and physically drained me. I felt lost and then my niece recommended I join RNT and my life transformed! Joining the RNT journey is the best thing I have done! It's an investment I know will serve me well in my health and wellbeing. 

    I feel physically and mentally fit, like I was in my late 30s. I feel so confident, ready to take on the world again. ALL of my health and menopause symptoms have gone! I now wake up every day at 6am and do 15k - 20k steps, train 3 times a week and do cardio twice a week, have a diet plan which is nutritionally balanced, I have taken up hobbies some of them are new and some that had been shelved.  Most of all RNT has given me the formula to age gracefully for a lifestyle solution. Having cared for my mum and seeing her with all the health problems, I want to ensure that I’m strong and have strength physically and mentally. I want to jump out of bed to do all the adventure sports I love. I want to be able to eat what I want and when I want and I am in the best state of health and wellness possible."

    You can listen to Vanita’s full story where she dives deeper into her transformation. 

    The Current Climate And The Future Role Of Fitness In Public Health

    You are probably thinking, with all of the evidence and research in place, then why isn’t everyone exercising more to improve their mental health?

    Depression and anxiety, amongst other mental health related issues, is very much a catch 22 scenario. While it is a common concept that exercise is an effective solution to improve mental health and wellbeing, the effects of such mental health problems leave the sufferer experiencing numerous side effects, such as fatigue and low motivation. This in turn suppresses the individual’s desire to partake in the act of physical exercise, leaving the potential solution unexplored, thus the cycle repeats.

    Although a vicious cycle to break, the lack of education, enforcement and accountability around the physical fitness and mental health agenda is arguably preventing millions from taking back control of their mental health through physical means, despite many researchers calling for exercise to be recognised as an official preventative solution and given importance at national or international level:

    'The need of promoting the role of physical activity, making it necessary to sensitize the society (through medical, educational, media, …): that a proper practice of physical activity, defined essentially as that it is suitable for the type of person, with a regular light to moderate intensity will cause people to improve their quality of life related to health and also reduce the likelihood of depression is less than if we keep a sedentary lifestyle.’ (Almagro Valverde, S., Duenas Guzman, M. A., Tercedor Sanchez, P. Physical Activity and Depression: A Systematic Review, 2014).

    According to the NHS website, ‘The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommends that people with mild to moderate depression take part in about 3 sessions a week, lasting about 45 minutes to 1 hour, over 10 to 14 weeks.’ However, this simply is not enough. When the 10 to 14 weeks is up, then what happens? Over time, depression will gradually return. There are no current long-term plans in place to provide a lifelong solution to the problem.

    Certainly, bouts of depression can be experienced, such as suffering a traumatic event like a bereavement, and its effects will dwindle over time. However, for those that suffer from clinical depression, the problem never goes away. Many become masters of concealment, whereas for others it may lay dormant for a while, but it is nevertheless present. For those within this category, depression never goes away – and so a temporary, quick-fix solution is not sufficient.

    As mentioned previously in Psychology Today, only long-term solutions breed long-term results, and all the time quick fixes are in place, the effects will always be short-lived.

    This needs to change.

    While exercise alone isn’t by any means a cure for depression, anxiety, and various other mental health issues, it is certainly an extremely effective natural preventative. It is undoubtable that long-term lifestyle solutions that combine all welfare requirements, such as nutrition, sleep quality and structure, are required to make a tangible difference to the mental health agenda, as backed up by countless conducted research as well as our own experience with RNT members.

    Health and fitness must become a national priority, not only for physical benefit, but mental too. As mental health awareness is becoming increasingly prominent in recent years, so too has our understanding of its causes, and its preventatives. However, efficient preventative methods are not being fully utilised.

    At RNT, we have seen the power of physical transformation on mental health having helped numerous clients combat depression and anxiety by using the physical as the vehicle. By transforming your day through structure, prioritising your self-care, learning positive habits and behaviours, building confidence and self-esteem and using a great level of introspect to uncover the deep-rooted issues that lie at the heart of your mental health problems, well, you don’t just transform you body, you can transform your life.

    • Psychology Today. Nov/Dec 1999, Vol. 32 Issue 6, p24. 1/3p.
    • American Fitness May/Jun 2000, Vol. 18 Issue 3, p38 4p
    • Almagro Valverde, S., Duenas Guzman, M. A., Tercedor Sanchez, P. Physical Activity and Depression: A Systematic Review. Revista Internacional de Medicina y Ciencias de la Actividad Fisica y del Deporte 2014, Vol. 14 Issue 54, p363 15p.
    • Glowacki, Krista., Faulkner, Guy. WellSpring, Sept 2019, Vol. 30 Issue 9, p1 5p.
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    • Rehn, T. A., Winett, R. A., Wisløff, U., & Rognmo, Ø, 2013, Increasing physical activity of high intensity to reduce the prevalence of chronic diseases and improve public health. The open cardiovascular medicine journal, 7, 1.
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    Akash VaghelaAkash Vaghela

    Akash Vaghela has spent 10+ years transforming bodies and lives around the world, and in May 2017, founded RNT Fitness to serve this purpose. His vision is to see a world transformed, where ambitious high performers experience the power of the physical as the vehicle to unlock their real potential. He’s the author of the Amazon best-selling book Transform Your Body Transform Your Life, which explains his unique and proven five-phase methodology, is host of the RNT Fitness Radio podcast, has been featured in the likes of Men’s Health and BBC, whilst regularly speaking across the world on all things transformation.

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