ENORPHINS.Those lovely, cuddly, feel-good hormones that flood the body when we exercise, make love or eat a curry.
For long enough, they have been at least part of the argument that says exercising the body is good for the mind, helping to alleviate the symptoms of depression.
Doctors and psychiatrists across the country have prescribed gym membership for patients. And on the NHS's own website, Dr Alan Cohen, a GP who specialises in mental health, says many people who are depressed can feel out of control. “Exercise gives them back control of their bodies, and this is often the first step to feeling in control of other events,” he says.
So recent research from Bristol and Exeter universities, claiming that exercise has no discernible benefit to those with depression, seems to fly in the face of anecdotal evidence suggesting otherwise. The study, of 361 patients aged 18 to 69, all of whom had recently been diagnosed with depression, was the first of its kind aimed at establishing the effects of physical activity on mental illness.
For a year, one group took part in an exercise programme as well as receiving their usual treatment, while the other had the treatment alone. At the end of the trial period, it was found that adding exercise to the regime had failed to make any difference. But what of Gwyneth Paltrow, who has said working out helped her get through post-natal depression? Or Alastair Campbell, who has spoken openly about his depression and who took up running in 2002 and then switched to triathlons as a way of dealing with the illness.
What of the thousands of people who say that swimming, running, cycling, going for a walk up a hill, playing a round of golf or a game of football, even doing a bit of weeding in the garden, has helped lift the symptoms of depression and allowed them to see light in their darkest of days? Is it all in their minds?
Dave Bruce was diagnosed with depression ten years ago, though the cause stemmed from a traumatic event several years earlier. “I was just finding life really quite hard to cope with; even simple things. I was getting screwed up about work, about home, my normal coping mechanisms weren’t kicking in. It was at that point that others realised something wasn’t quite right and my wife insisted I go to the doctor.”
The 51-year-old from Edinburgh was signed off his job in insurance and was prescribed medication and counselling, which helped, he says. “But I think I’d hoped there might be some kind of silver bullet that would just sort it out once and for all. I was quite naive. It maybe works for some people but most of the time, for me, it’s about managing it and taking things a step at time.”
He had heard physical exercise could help ease the symptoms of depression and, when he passed a sports shop advertising a local half-marathon, he figured he could do that. “I was never athletic at school,” he laughs. “I was one of the people who never got picked for the team. But I started out just walking and jogging, then walking and running, jogging and running, then just running. I could see myself getting a little bit better each week and each month, and I managed to complete the event.
“It wasn’t a great time but I got the medal and for me it was like a pat on the back; I’d achieved something. It gave me the good feeling I needed.”
Suzie Vestri, campaign director of See Me Scotland, the anti-stigma mental health campaign, believes the Bristol study should not be looked at in isolation, but considered alongside the anecdotal evidence and the many other reports that have shown exercise to have a beneficial effect.
“It is just one study,” she says, “and no doctor in the world is going to stop recommending people take exercise.
“There’s a physical response of wellbeing caused by exercise but also people find, at its most basic level, that it takes their minds off mild to moderate depression or anxiety. It also helps them sleep better, and broken sleep or an inability to sleep can be an integral part of depression.”
Since taking up sport, Bruce has run the London, Edinburgh and Inverness marathons, and would love to tackle New York or Paris next. “I am one of the people who can’t just run for the sake of it; there has to be something at the end of it. That target was very important and it’s making sure that target is achievable.”
And he also warns of the danger of expecting too much of yourself; to take any kind of exercise in small, manageable chunks. “There are times when you’re not feeling all that great and you’re having a bad day, and it’s being able to go out when you’re not feeling great that really does help. But at the same time, you’re allowed not to be well, so it’s equally important not to beat yourself up about it.”
Part of the appeal, he says, is regaining some kind of control over your life. “Depression can very easily overtake you. At the point I was at in the beginning, it consumed me and it was a very difficult thing to come out of, and it didn’t happen overnight.
“By running, it gave me a feeling of achievement, of being in control, it gave me a feeling of being well and part of life in a positive way.”
For depression support, log on to www.seemescotland.org
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Saturday 25 May 2013
Temperature: 5 C to 17 C
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Wind Speed: 14 mph
Wind direction: West