Ok, ok- I know this whole “Exercise will make you happier!” thing has been beaten to death. We all know that exercise stimulates endorphin production and puts you in a good mood. But let’s go a little bit deeper: How does exercise stack up against treatments used in the mental health profession, such as therapy and prescription medications?
Physical activity does wonders for the Average Joe, but what about Anxious Joe, Clinically Depressed Joe, ADHD Joe, and all the other Joes out there?
The Positive Effects of Exercise on Adults with Depression:
In 1999, Dr. James A. Blumenthal and his colleagues demonstrated in a ground-breaking study that regular exercise (30 minutes, three times a week) is equally effective as antidepressant medications for patients with major depression. The study used 156 adults split up into three groups: Those treated by Zoloft only, those treated by exercise only, and those treated by a combination of Zoloft and exercise. The results? “A modest exercise program is an effective, robust treatment for patients with major depression who are positively inclined to participate in it.” Surprised?
Furthermore, in the six months following the original study, Blumenthal & team continued to monitor their subjects’ behaviors, and published a follow-up study in 2000. This follow-up study found an even more stunning correlation between exercise, mental health, and antidepressants: The group of patients who had been treated with only exercise had the lowest rates of depresssion and relapse, compared to the other cohorts who had been treated with only Zoloft, or even a combination of Zoloft and exercise (Source).
In a nutshell: Exercise > Antidepressants.
The Positive Effects of Exercise on Children with ADHD:
While education is important, the effects of increasingly demanding academic standards on young children is a little frightening, and makes my inner-child weep. Since the late 1980s, up to 40% of U.S. school districts have reduced or eliminated recess in order to free up more time for core academics, and one in four elementary schools no longer provides recess to all grades (State of Play).
WHAT?! NO PLAY-TIME? No time for little kids to run, jump, swing, roughhouse, or exercise? Oh dear. If there’s anything worse than full-grown adults not exercising, it has got to be children not exercising.
This decline in unstructured play time began 30 years ago, around the same time as the explosion in ADHD diagnoses and Ritalin drug sales, “despite research showing unstructured play promotes learning while releasing energy and stress and minimizing disruptive behaviors” (Children & Nature). In 2009 “a groundbreaking study of 11,000 third-graders, comparing those who had little or no daily recess with those that had more than 15 minutes of recess per day… children who have more recess time behave better in the classroom and are likelier to learn more”. Furthermore, “More than 8 in 10 principals report that recess has a positive impact on academic achievement…2/3 of principals report that students listen better after recess and are more focused in class”.
In a nutshell (again): Exercise > ADHD medications.
It’s a bit, well, depressing actually. Despite these convincing findings, as well as a slew of other studies proving the positive mental health benefits of exercise, exercise is still not used a a method of treatment in the mental health profession for ADHD in children, or major depression in adults. However, you always have the power to take control of your own physical and mental health. The mind and body are not two separate entities- both work together to create overall wellness within yourself. Exercise is a powerful and effective way to improve one’s mental health, and should never be undervalued nor overlooked.