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Rx for Depression? Exercise!

Mood disorders have always been treated rather shabbily in the wider world. People who are experiencing depression are often told things like, “What do YOU have to be depressed about?” Or, “Snap out of it. Think yourself happy.” They’re depressed to begin with, and then they hear such ‘advice’ from others who have a) never experienced what it is actually like to be depressed or who b) believe that rubbing desiccated liver of Spitting Vipers on the right elbow while reciting the words to “Don’t Worry Be Happy” cures everyone of nearly anything, but especially depression.


Depression is a very real and measurable disorder, and as we heard from Dr. Mohammed Alsuwaidan during a professional development workshop for the Middle East Psychological Association (MEPA), that impacts the sufferer mentally, emotionally and physically. There is just no way to separate the parts of who we are into discrete, not-connected pieces. To be depressed is so much more that just being ‘sad.’ So let’s dispense with the “It’s all in your head,” garbage and get to the research that’s being done in the field of mood disorders.

Dr. Alsuwaidan, a Canadian-trained psychiatrist (Oh Canada!) is Clinical Head of the specialized Mood Disorders Clinic at the Kuwait Center for Mental Health. His first line of treatment for many patients newly diagnosed with depression is E X E R C I S E. Not drugs – exercise. Specifically, Dr. Alsuwaidan prescribes “30 minutes of moderate intensity activity 5 – 7 x week; (a) you must work hard enough to sweat for the majority of the exercise period and (b) you must be working hard enough that you cannot maintain a conversation.”

More and more of the focus of research is on the actual, physical changes in the body that happen as a result of mood dysfunction. Neurons melt, synapses fire/misfire, and brain chemicals are altered. Exciting to me is the body of data emerging that appears to support the theory that exercise is an effective anti-dote to depression. Not only does exercise stimulate the efficient and effective production of serotonin and dopamine (among a lot of other brain chemicals), exercise also encourages the production of endorphins (‘endogenous morphine!’). Further to that little bit of good news (proof of what was already suspected), is the growing body of evidence that seems to indicate that exercise actually rebuilds or rejuvenates neural pathways. It’s looking like exercise could be both cure and relapse prevention for depression.

I’m so okay with this. I’ve been “prescribing” exercise for my clients with depression for years. To learn that for a significant percentage of people with depression, exercise has the same effectiveness as does medication, is just simply…glorious. And last I checked, the negative side effects of a good exercise program were, um… like, non-existent. How groovy is that? Exercise may be a natural answer to depression with no down side; rather, in fact, a lot of upsides. Better health, better mood, better thinking, better life.

As is true with all disorders, exercise may not be the complete answer for some individuals in relieving their depression, and other intervention(s) including medication may be prescribed in addition to the exercise.

Exercise needs to be part of a lifestyle change that includes good self-care, mindful stress management, and in the case of depression, working with an experienced therapist. So the next time you come to see me about depression, you can be assured that among other things we discuss, I’ll ‘prescribe’ regular exercise ~ that’s 5-7 times a week. Hot, sweaty cardio is good (I’m a runner), but so is brisk walking …or cycling …or spinning …or yoga …or Pilates.

Actually, don’t wait to see me.

Start now.

You won’t regret it.

Dr. Susannah-Joy Schuilenberg, RPC, MPCC-S, DAAETS, ACS

Originally published in bazaar Kuwait 11.06.2014 (Edited)

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