Physical activity and cognitive health are two inseparable concepts. The interdependence is so great that any change in either one will result in an immediate effect on the other. Since ancient times it has been known that physical activity alleviates the symptoms of sadness, grief and more specifically depression. Depression is very common in the present times and people have lost the ability to deal with it adequately and effectively. Physical activity is a great way to reduce stress and cure depression.
Sometimes it is hard to establish which state causes depression. Is it the lack of activity that leads to depression or is a person who is depressed, decreases their level of activity? Some studies have shown that a prolonged period of inactivity makes depression more severe and increases the risk of it becoming permanent. Almost one out of three people experience depression at some point in their life. Some research shows that as much as 8% of women and 4% of men in the United States have experienced depression. Many people do not seek help and thus are faced with a hard challenge. Physicians today recommend physical activity to relieve stress and depressed mood. It has been shown that physical activity helps prevent depression in people of any age. On a strictly psychological level, a person who exercises feels better about themselves morally. They feel that they have accomplished something and the euphoric emotion overpowers the state of depression. The bodily chemical functions and cognitive mechanisms are closely intertwined. It has been shown that physical activity greatly influences blood pressure, platelet function, heart rate, variability and the autonomic nervous system in general (Contrada, 2010).
The first way in which physical activity relieves depression is the structure of activity. It does not necessarily have to be heavy lifting or other types of strength training. A game of volleyball, badminton or even swimming, will create changes in the brain that will release chemicals, which beneficially deal with the depressed state. When a person begins any sort of physical activity, the body arranges itself and prepares for a different state. The neural controls give a signal to the mechanisms in the body that affect the blood flow, skeletal muscles, tissues and organs (Otto, 2011). The activity of the body makes the brain release endorphins into the bloodstream and as such, the whole mechanism of the body is affected. This happens unconsciously. A person who is depressed does not have to make a cognitive effort in order to relieve the depression. It is as if the activity presses out the depression by giving a signal that there is a heavy load on the body and all the resources must be used to deal with increased physical activity. The chemicals that cause the person to feel depressed are overtaken by the chemicals, which increase circulation. Breathing and sweating become evident, as well as chemical exchanges and nutrients in the body. A person who is depressed is often prescribed medication to relieve the symptoms. Paxil and Prozac work on the activity of neurotransmitters in the brain in dealing with depression. These medications are classified as serotonin selective reuptake inhibitors. And research has shown that exercise displays an equivalent effect on the brain and chemical releases (Ekkekakis, 2006).
As briefly mentioned previously, cognitively, physical activity creates a structure in a person’s life. The individual is looking forward to the exercise. There is a change in plans, adjustment of the schedule, which forces a person to think about the future activity and not the present state of depression. When a person is depressed, there is a lack of motivation, but once the planning starts, motivation increases by itself. This leads to the feeling of relief from the depressed mood. The state after the exercise is another level of reward and relief. A person feels that they have accomplished something. The positive attitude towards the body immediately affects the brain because the person has no way to deny that something has been gained. There have been many studies, one of them included 10000 students from
Harvard over a period of ten years and a concrete correlation between exercise and rates of depression have been established (Freeman, 2011). Stress is the direct cause of depression. An interesting point is that physical activity and regular exercise are themselves a form of stress but positive. Psychologically or cognitively a person gets used to stress and the body itself learns how to deal with heightened body stress. In general, the brain is very sensitive to negative thoughts and feelings of self-worth. When it is low the person becomes stressed. Depression then quickly follows. In some cases exercise has been shown to deal with depression even better than psychotherapy and medications together (Wuest & Fisette 2012).
Overall, it is clear that exercise is a very effective way to deal with depression. At the first sign of stress, a person must start a routine of exercises and as a result, a state of depression will be avoided altogether.
Contrada, R. (2010). The handbook of stress science: Biology, psychology, and health. New York, United States: Springer Publishing Company.
Ekkekakis, P. (2006). Psychobiology of physical activity. Champaign, United States: Human Kinetics.
Freeman, W. (2011). Physical education, exercise and sport science in a changing society. Sudbury, United States: Jones & Bartlett Publishers.
Otto, M. (2011). Exercise for mood and anxiety: Proven strategies for overcoming depression. New York, United States: Oxford University Press.
Wuest, D. A., & Fisette, J. L. (2012). Foundations of physical education, exercise science, and sport (17th ed.). New York, United States: McGraw-Hill.