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Winter blues? Here’s an all-natural way to feel better!

North American guidelines recommend 150 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous exercise a week but only about 15% of Canadians and 30% of Americans report meeting this allotted time. About 36% of Americans report to have relatively sedentary lifestyles; this combined with the westernized diet may be an underlying mechanism in the recent rise of mental health disorders. Studies consistently show that people who are active are far less likely to have mental health problems than inactive individuals. Do you often feel blue? This article will give you (drug free) ideas to feel better. Exercise isn’t only great for getting in shape; it’s also good for your mind!

Why are some people frequently depressed while others seem to be stress free? Mental health is determined by a number of factors including diet, activity level, genetics, and past experiences. Your brain is remarkably plastic and can be remodelled by your lifestyle; hormones associated with stress drive adaptation in order to protect you. Where you brought up in a loving or abusive household? Are you eating a diet high in plant-based items or do you survive on fast food? Are you active or a couch potato?

Here are some striking examples of how lifestyles can shape your brain. Human hippocampi (a region in your brain) are actually shrunken in individuals with mental health disorders (and also Alzheimers’); chronic stress, diabetes, and lack of exercise reportedly decrease the size of hippocampal lobes. Up-bringing also plays a huge role in mental health; adversity (including chaotic households, abuse, and low socioeconomic status) early in life is also related with smaller hippocampal lobes, along with less prefrontal cortical grey matter and other physical changes. Clearly stress exposure, diet, and exercise levels are important determinants to happiness. Life experiences will ultimately influence the chemical and physical conditions of your brain because of your body’s attempts to adapt to stress.

If we go in to a doctor about feeling blue, antidepressants will commonly be the prescribed solution. Antidepressants are a huge market today, seen through their common appearance on TV. It seems like every fifth commercial will be one advertising a drug for mental health, followed by a long list of possible side effects. Antidepressants have significant limitations; only about 50-65% of patients with anxiety disorders even benefit from antidepressants. Why is this so commonly our first approach when lifestyle interventions have been proven to be both effective and safe?

A top-down therapy (i.e. without medication) can be a powerful approach to enhance mental health; regular exercise consistently shows improvements in mental health disorders. Healthy diets that are rich in fruits, vegetables, and omega 3s, as well as containing adequate macronutrients (protein, carbs, and fat) are also associated with improvements in mental health. Exercise programs along with a healthy diet are good, drug free ways to elevate your mental state.

Sleep improvements, success within a workout program, body composition improvements, social interactions, and distractions from daily stress make exercise a great treatment option. The mental benefits from exercise relate to our neuroendocrine systems, body temperature, endorphins, and our serotonergic systems following a bout of exercise. On an anatomical level, regular exercise will actually increase hippocampal size (by just walking an hour 5 days a week) in previously sedentary individuals.

A new exercise and diet regime can be challenging to start, but overtime your body will adapt to make things easier; the initial challenge is a common reason for people not to adhere to this treatment option. Regardless, with all of the benefits associated with general health (e.g. heart disease and diabetes prevention), exercise and diet should be the first consideration when addressing mental health. Listen to your body. How do you feel after you work out? How do certain foods make you feel? Instead of turning to drugs that mask our bodies’ internal messages, we should listen!

Starting from scratch and don’t know how to get going? Take the stairs more often, join a recreational team, or find a fun hobby (rock climbing anyone?). Once you find something you can enjoy or be passionate about, you’ll find improvements in all areas of your health, and not just mental health. It’s easy to get down on yourself or become overwhelmed with stress; while this is bound to happen from time to time, long term stress can actually change your brain in deleterious ways. Strive for positivity! Tell yourself that it’s ok, that you love yourself and try to avoid negative thoughts about others (hard at times, I know!). Lastly, remember that you are worth every hard effort you take!

Asmundson G, Fetzner M, DeBoer L, Powers M, Otto M, Smits J. (2012) Let’s get physical: a contemporary review of the anxiolytic effects of exercise for anxiety and its disorders. doi: 10.1002/da.22043.

McEwen, B. (2012) Brain on stress: How the social environment gets under the skin. doi:10.1073/pnas.1121254109.

Sarris J, Moylan S, Camfield D, Pase M, Berk M, Jacka F, Schweitzer L.(2012) Complementary Medicine, Exercise, Meditation, Diet, and Lifestyle Modification for Anxiety Disorders: A Review of Current Evidence. doi:10.1155/2012/809653.

See this and other articles on Jennifer Novakovich's website

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