Exercise can be highly effective in treating mild to moderate depression. Image Credit: Getty Images

If you are feeling low or if you have a been diagnosed with depression, the last thing you probably feel like doing is putting on your trainers and going for a brisk walk or a jog. But that's exactly what you should do. Studies have shown that exercise can be highly effective in treating mild to moderate depression. In fact, there is evidence proving that exercise is as effective as antidepressants, without the side effects of drugs.

In recent trials, scientists found that moderate aerobic exercise that raises the heart rate - like brisk walking, running, cycling - for at least 30 minutes, three times a week for a minimum of eight weeks, was effective in both treating and preventing depression.

Scientists believe that exercise helps us to feel better for two reasons: first it creates chemical changes in the brain, including the release of endorphins, which give us a sense of wellbeing. Second - and this is especially important in people with depression - it creates a sense of achievement.

According to Dr Raymond Hamden, clinical psychologist at Human Relations Institute Dubai, "Although antidepressants may facilitate a more rapid initial therapeutic response than exercise, after 16 weeks of treatment, exercise has been found to be equally effective in reducing depression in patients suffering major depressive disorder."

Psychologist Dr Ron Bracey adds, "Tackling depression is all about creating a change of state. Many people who are depressed feel they have lost control over their lives."

"They often describe depression as being similar to ‘walking through treacle'. Becoming self-motivated and fulfilling self-determined goals - even if it's just a half-kilometre walk - is one way to overcome these feelings," he adds.

This is why every morning after she drops off her daughter at school, Rachael Taylor runs 5km. Without wanting to sound melodramatic, she says, "Running saved my life." 

When life hands you lemons

Two years ago, at 29, Rachael consulted her doctor about her depression. "I didn't want to go out or see anyone, and I was crying every day," she says. Considering the events in her life in the previous year it was not surprising.

"I donated a kidney to my husband when he was diagnosed with kidney disease. Just before my operation my grandmother died, so emotionally I had to postpone my grieving in order to be strong for the operation."

"After my husband's operation, he needed a lot of care and his behaviour, due to the powerful drugs he had to take, was often hard to deal with. I was looking after him and our two-year-old daughter Ella," Rachael says.

"Over the next year, I suffered two miscarriages, my marriage became very strained, and we separated." Despite all of this, Rachael admits, "I felt ashamed to be talking to my doctor about not coping."

Rachael was prescribed antidepressants. "I was reluctant to take drugs and asked my doctor if I could have counselling as well. I was told to come back in six months if the drugs had not worked."

Prescribing drugs is often the first step that doctors take, despite it being discouraged by organisations in the UK such as the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (Nice). Figures show that 93 per cent of doctors prescribe drugs, mainly because they don't know that else to offer distressed patients.

Rachael says that she took the medicine for a short time before turning to other types of treatment. "After a few weeks of feeling no better, I started exploring self-help information online and in particular the book, Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway. I knew I had to confront my emotions, not bury them under drugs," she says.

"One day I plucked up the courage to go out and have a short walk at the beach near where I live. I had put off being alone with my thoughts outside the house, but knew I had to face up to what was happening in my life. I felt great that I had managed to get out of the house and have a walk," says Rachel.

Mind, a leading UK-based mental-health charity, has published research that shows that 90 per cent of people report higher self-esteem after exercising outside, and 88 per cent report an overall improvement in their mood.

The next step for Rachael was to start running. "I found a podcast that suggested walking for one minute, then running for one minute to music. I managed 20 minutes of this walk-jog routine, which would have been unbelievable a few months before."

Rachael also needed to lose some weight as she had been eating for comfort. As she gradually built up her walk-jog routine to three times a week, the weight began to fall off.

"I am now addicted to running," she says. "I run three miles (about 5km) every morning as soon as Ella is at school. It sets me up for the day and I feel like I can then deal with anything. If I don't run, I miss it and can sometimes find those old feelings of anxiousness I had creeping back," she says. 

A healthier alternative

In the UK, Mind is trying to promote ecotherapy as an alternative to drugs for treating depression. Ecotherapy includes not only walking and running outdoors, but also gardening and cycling. The evidence from the organisation's studies shows that any activity done outside has a beneficial effect on mental health.

Psychologist Dr Christine Bundy suggests exercising with other people as she says this can prevent feelings of isolation. But she stresses that exercising alone is also effective.

"It's important to choose a form of exercise that you enjoy, whether it's walking, cycling, football or any other sport. If it's a new form of exercise, then any small achievement at mastering it will raise your self esteem," Dr Bundy says. "If you meet new people too, this will prevent you from feeling isolated and introspective. In order to see results, the exercise needs to be aerobic, raising your heart rate," she adds.

Hafsa Sliman, physiotherapist at Dubai Herbal and Treatment Centre, says, "Around 30 minutes a day five times a week, or 60 minutes a day three times a week, seems to be the most effective exercise programme, but you can start small. Make it easy for yourself, starting with even ten to 15 minutes a day, five times a week, and slowly build up from there."

"Set reasonable goals; choose something you enjoy doing ; identify setbacks and obstacles, such as not having enough time, and find ways to overcome them; and go outside and make it social," she adds.

Rachael has become so convinced of the power of exercise in alleviating depression that she has now trained as a motivator with Susan Jeffers, author of Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway. "I now have my own business, where I work with individuals wanting to turn their lives around, as I did. I can't believe that something as simple as a walk along the seafront set me on the road to recovery and changed me from the person I was a year ago, to who I am now."

Walk, jog or cycle:

Some easy options for outdoor exercise in Dubai:

  • Beaches are aplenty and easy to get to, so make time for a walk/jog on the beach every evening. Go it alone if you prefer solitude, but don't hesitate to ask a friend for company - sometimes that's all the motivation they might need.
  • Stride for Life is a walking group that organises aerobic walking and running programmes in various locations, including Safa Park.
  • If you enjoy cycling, Dubai Roadsters is a recreational cycling community that regularly organise rides in and around the city. It also offers a great opportunity to meet other like-minded people, www.dubairoadsters.com