Depression is one of the silent life-takers we’ve addressed here on the FindMeCure blog. We are invested in helping you take better care of your health by providing you with information about new treatments, research outcomes and medical advancements because we believe that knowledge is power. Naturally, when new developments in depression research made headlines, we wanted to share them with you. 

In recent years researchers have been focusing on better understanding the complex factors that increase the risk of developing mental health issues. What appears to be a global epidemic of depression and anxiety (though the numbers may look the way they do because of increasing acceptance and tendency to report and in turn receive treatment) is a major health concern. Depression and anxiety not only lead to poor quality of life but are often linked to increased mortality risk. Researchers believe that though we may not have full control over genetic factors, lifestyle also plays a role in a person’s risk of developing anxiety or depression. It follows that if we recognise the environmental factors, we’ll be in a position to introduce the change that’s needed.

A recent study may help us do just that. It appears that cardiorespiratory fitness can help prevent common mental health issues like anxiety and depression. Cardiorespiratory fitness measures our cardiovascular and respiratory systems’ capacity to supply the body with oxygen during physical activity. The authors of the study note that there have been studies that imply a link exists between poor fitness and common mental health issues. Measuring the link between cardiorespiratory fitness and mental health risk, however, requires expensive equipment, that’s why the study focuses on meta-analysis. 

The study not only found a link between low and medium cardiorespiratory fitness and a greater risk of developing common mental health issues but researchers also have evidence that increase in cardiorespiratory fitness can proportionately lower the risk of a new onset mental disorder. Since exercise is the most effective way to increase cardiorespiratory fitness, the results of the study seem to imply that physical activity can lower the risk of developing anxiety and depression. But can exercise alleviate symptoms or supplement the treatment for depression? 

A recent review conducted by Felipe Barretto Schuch, from the Universidade Federal de Santa Maria in Brazil, and Brendon Stubbs, from King’s College London in the United Kingdom, suggests that exercise can be effective in the fight against depression and should be included as a supplementing treatment. According to the authors, current guidelines for the treatment of depression can benefit from including lifestyle changes like physical activity alongside antidepressants and talk therapy.

Stubbs and Schuch caution that not everyone will benefit equally from the ‘antidepressant’ effects of exercise because a number of different factors are at play. However, it appears that – although research is still looking for a more precise answer – the reason physical activity proves so beneficial is its ability to reduce inflammation, promote cellular health and brain cells regeneration. The authors also note that self-motivation is key in maintaining a regular exercise routine. This means that physical activity in and of itself cannot be a reliable treatment for depression since in many cases of clinical depression, self-motivation is out of reach before the necessary medication makes it possible for the depressed person to participate in life again. 

We wanted to make this clear because we realise how encouragement to take up exercise can sound to the majority of people who suffer from debilitating depression. Balancing the chemicals responsible for severe depression is still the first step in treatment. Physical activity can simply be part of the treatment plan. 

If you’re willing to give exercise a chance and you want to have a better understanding of how it works to improve mood in depression, new research may have a more a detailed answer. It turns out, the endocannabinoid system can give us some much-needed answers. It’s a cell signalling system that affects the function of the immune, cardiovascular and nervous systems and it’s comprised of endocannabinoids and receptors. Physical activity seems to increase endocannabinoid levels, which to put it simply, is a good thing when it comes to mood improvement. The authors of the research theorise that a better understanding of the exact way exercise affects the endocannabinoid system can allow medical professionals to design “optimal exercise interventions”. 

If the study outcomes are to be taken literally, it seems that prescribed moderate-intensity exercise is better for increasing endocannabinoid levels, compared to sessions built on the participant’s preferred intensity. However, the investigators are not sure what led to these results and more research will be needed to determine the optimal intensity at which physical activity is most beneficial. 

It appears that the effect of physical activity on the mood is quick and lasting. The fact that the group that trained at their preferred intensity level still experienced improved mood, although no change in endocannabinoid levels was present, led researchers to conclude that multiple factors are involved in the way exercise lifts mood. One thing we can take away from those three studies, however, and that’s the conclusion that physical activity is beneficial to mental health and including regular exercise in our day-to-day lives can not only prevent but also help treat common mental health issues. 

If you’re interested in clinical research studies focused on mental health issues, on the FindMeCure website you can check what treatments are currently under investigation. Even if you don’t end up participating in a clinical trial, it can be reassuring to know that scientists work on improving treatments and introducing innovations in healthcare every day. 

And if you are looking to enrol in a clinical trial, you should know that there are different studies and not all of them test new pharmacological treatments – some of them are researching the effects of exercise, diet or other lifestyle changes. Some of those studies even accept healthy volunteers for their control groups, so if you want to help further medical research for the sake of a loved one who suffers from depression, you have that option too.

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