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Kevlar for the mind: Exercise can help take the edge off of depression

Sep. 20, 2012 - 03:17PM   |   Last Updated: Sep. 20, 2012 - 03:17PM  |  
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The military spends tens of millions of dollars each year to find new ways to treat such mental health disorders as depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.

However, researchers are finding that an age-old approach can be just as effective as medication and psychotherapy and it's free.

What is it? Exercise. Yes, plain, old exercise.

Scientists have long known that exercise can have a positive effect on emotional health. But it's only recently that we have started to learn just how effective exercise can really be. In fact, several studies have shown that when compared to medication and psychotherapy, exercise is just as effective in moderate to severe cases of depression.

The same may be true for PTSD. Last year, researchers at the University of West Florida found that at least two sessions of aerobic exercise a week were as effective as cognitive-behavioral therapy the premier form of talk therapy.

So, why does exercise work so well? The answer is not fully known, but several reasons are suspected. For one, exercise releases chemicals in the brain such as "feel-good" endorphins and the neurotransmitter serotonin, which is believed to play a role in the cause and alleviation of depression and anxiety.

Another reason is that exercise increases core body temperature, and in turn, leads to a sense of calm and relaxation. Other possibilities include increased self-confidence, opportunities to increase social interaction and the ability to distract oneself from ruminating on negative thoughts.

The question then remains: Why does society continue to spend billions of dollars each year on magic pills and professional friends? Well, exercise is hard. It requires commitment and willingness to accept physical discomfort, and it runs counter to the American pastime of watching television.

The good news is that service members are not average Americans. Exercise is as much a part of military culture as saluting.

Troops who exercise and still experience emotional distress may not be exercising enough. The average service member is already at a higher level of physical fitness than Mr. or Mrs. Civilian. Therefore, you may need to devote more time to exercise or increase the intensity to see additional benefits.

However, for some, exercise will not be enough. When depression and anxiety are severe, exercise should be viewed as part of an overall treatment plan that may also include talk therapy and medication.

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