It has been known for years that physical activity is also a panacea for mental health. Moving is good for the mood, regenerates, creates well-being and is able to prevent the risk of depression or even help cure it. How many times do you say: “I’m going for a walk to unwind” or do you feel satisfied after a game of tennis or soccer? Now one of the largest scientific works ever conducted on the subject and published in the British Journal of Medicine has confirmed, if there were still any need, that thephysical activity reduces symptoms of anxiety and depression to a significant extent. Of course, these are conditions that should be managed by professionals and not trivialized, but now it can be said, with the support of important data, that to combat anxiety and depression, physical activity which can be a real extra weapon and complement the psychological intervention and pharmacological.
The types of sports against anxiety and depression
The survey, conducted by scientists from the University of South Australia, is, technically, an umbrella review, i.e. the statistical analysis of the results of numerous systematic reviews and meta-analyses (which in turn take various researches into consideration) with a hundred scientific works involving almost 130 thousand participants. It emerged that better results against anxiety and depression were obtained with high intensity sports, even if this kind of activity is not suitable for everyone and should always be agreed with a doctor. Not all exercises worked the same way. The yoga or other specialties involving mind and body seem to be more effective against anxietywhile the endurance sports like running or biking would be most helpful in relieving symptoms of depression.
The “runner’s high”
Physical exercise, particularly aerobic exercise, is known to induce the brain to produce di endorfine, chemical substances with analgesic and exciting properties. «It is documented that with high-intensity aerobic activity you have a increase of up to 500 percent in the secretion of endorphins and that explains the feeling of euphoria e you optimism which arises after having practiced some physical activity» he confirms Gianfranco Beltrami, specialist in sports medicine and national vice president of the Italian sports medicine federation. She is called, not surprisingly, own “runner’s high” that feeling of well-being that occurs after running or other endurance activities, which somewhat resembles that experienced by those who take drugs, smoke, drink or eat chocolate, and which creates a certain level of dependence.
In the Australian study, the benefits were particularly relevant when the training program lasted for three months or a little less, while a longer duration would instead (at least on mental health) have a smaller impact. It may look like a It makes no sense that shorter workouts over time are more effective, but scientists speculate that those who are depressed may find it burdensome to be faced with long-term goals, which could affect the psychological benefits. “Our review shows that physical activity significantly reduces symptoms of anxiety and depression in many groups of people including new mothers, pregnant women, HIV patients, depressed subjects,” comments Professor Ben Singh, who coordinated the study. but also in the general population with no known disorders. The study found that all types of physical activity and exercise were beneficial: from walking to strength training, from yoga to pilates.
Mens sana in corpore sano the Romans already said and today neuroscience confirms it. But what are the mechanisms that make physical activity so effective against depression? Exercise is a sort of “factory” of hormones and molecules. One of these substances that enter the circulation is theto the iris (in this case produced by moving muscle tissue), the so-called “sports hormone” which, in addition to transforming white fat, i.e. the harmful one, into brown fat, «has a crucial role in the memory enhancement e Attentionthanks to the development of new nerve cells in the hippocampus, an area of the brain connected to memorization and learning processes» comments Gianfranco Beltrami. In this regard, it has been observed that in people who perform aerobic physical activity, the size of thehippocampus are above the average of those who do not practice. Irisin is able to preserve memory and synaptic plasticity even when the accumulation of amyloid beta (the protein that is deposited in the brain of people with Alzheimer’s) has already started (in people with Alzheimer’sAlzheimer irisin is in fact present in lower than normal quantities).
Then come into play neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine, which have an important effect in regulating mood: «The fact that serotonin production increases during physical activity has a clear antidepressant effect» adds Beltrami. Physical activity protects the brain also thanks to the fcerebral neutrophil actor (Bdnf), crucial for neuronal growth. Scientific studies have found a strong relationship between concentrations of BDNF circulating in the brain and an increase in the size of the hippocampus, the brain region responsible for learning and memory. “It has also been shown – explains the sports doctor – that increased levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor improve cognitive performance and mental clarity and help reduce anxiety and depression. Conversely, researchers observed mood disturbances in patients with lower concentrations of brain-derived neurotrophic factor. Finally, the insulin-like growth factor or IGF-1 secreted in response to resistance exercises also improves cognitive processes.
To this lively hormonal structure are added other aspects related to the general benefits obtained by the body which have an important impact on depression. «The fact of seeing oneself with a better appearance, perhaps lost weight, less stressed with improved blood test values, blood sugar, inflammation has an important influence on mental health. A heart patient who is able to climb the stairs without breathlessness after a bit of exercise will also feel better from a mental point of view» reflects Beltrami.
Children and adolescents
Even in children, increasing moderate to vigorous physical activity can prevent future symptoms of depression. In adolescents, more physical activity and less time spent in front of a screen are associated with better mental health, according to numerous studies. It is not known what the optimal exercise prescription is in people with depression and the relationship between the “dose” of exercise (intensity, frequency and duration) and the “therapeutic response” still remains unknown.
Difficulty getting started
However, the first challenge to face is to overcome the difficulty and also the skepticism of people with depression in starting a program of physical activity. «The most complex step is to leave because then when the benefits start to arrive it is easier to continue» says Beltrami. «The program must be personalized because taking depressed people to the gym with others who are already trained is counterproductive: they will feel inadequate and immediately give up. Taking a daily walk, perhaps in the evening after work and in the dark, could be boring and repetitive. The best is to start with a personal trainer for 5-6 sessions and then join small homogeneous groups for activities».
The exercises must also be enjoyable. Studies of depressed individuals have shown that if people enjoy exercising they will be motivated not only to continue, but will experience an improvement in symptoms of depression. Physical exercise could therefore be prescribed as a therapy for depression, in combination with other treatments such as psychotherapy or drug therapy. Exercise, numerous studies indicate, also works to prevent symptoms and improve relapse rates. We cannot generalize, each case is individual and certainly not for everyone physical activity sufficient to overcome a state of depression, but given the numerous scientific works now available to support the benefits of sport also on the psyche it is certainly worth keeping in mind serious consideration for its potential.
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