The elevated levels of endorphins released during exercise make it an effective treatment for depression.
When people hear the word fitness, they generally think of physical strength and endurance. When it comes down to it, the fitness lifestyle is all about the overall health of a person, not just physical resilience, strength, and endurance. That is why fitness is a lifestyle, not just a sporadic schedule of trips to the track or gym. While a somewhat irregular workout schedule can produce some results physically, it will not produce any significant change to ones physical state and most importantly will not result in a person receiving the full fitness experience, including its mental benefits. I myself once believed that fitness was only a physical matter, and so I only pursued the physical side of fitness in the form of running and lifting. I was not aware that fitness was about more than that. I was also not aware of the fact that while I was only pursuing the physical side of fitness, it was affecting my mind as well.
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After spending more time in the fitness community, I noticed that everyone I met who was serious about fitness was very easygoing, nice, relaxed in nature, and simply overall less noticeably depressed than any other group of people that I associate with. I eventually began to wonder whether this had anything to do with the physical activity itself causing people to behave this way, and if so could it help some of my other friends with depression. Physical performance is always affected by a person’s mental state, so it seems very plausible that things could work the other way around as well, that a person’s mental state may be affected by their physical performance since there is obviously a connection between body and mind.
There are several things that happen to the human brain as a result of exercise. Exercise balances the levels of several endorphins in the brain, as well as increasing the production of BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor), which helps build and maintain the infrastructure of the brain (Noble 2016). The balancing of endorphins in the brain can improve a person’s mood and behavior. According to the Australian Institute of Fitness, the endorphins affected are serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine. Together, these endorphins are responsible for influencing things such as mood, attention, motivation, arousal, and feelings of wellbeing (Noble 2016). This means that the person who exercised will experience an increase in happiness, motivation, and self esteem as a result.
Put together the fact that my fitness friends are all significantly less noticeably depressed than some of my other friends and the fact that exercise often results in increased happiness, motivation, and self-esteem, it seems as if there is a connection. To be sure, the factors that result in and affect depression itself need to be examined. According to NAMI (National Association on Mental Illness), depression is caused by a wide range of things, which vary from case to case. The most commonly known cause is a chemical imbalance in the brain, though this cause is apparently given more credit than it deserves. Recent studies now show that depression may be related to genetically passed traits or cell growth and brain connections as well, meaning that no one treatment works for every case, as the causes of depression vary from case to case (Roberts 2014). In an interview with therapist Dr. Lagro, I learned that there is also a correlation between depression and vitamin deficiencies. Considering that many forms of fitness take place outside, fitness could provide someone with time in the sun, which could potentially help with a vitamin D deficiency.
It is common knowledge that regular exercise over a long period of time will produce changes in appearance and performance. These changes may increase the self esteem of someone with depression, which is often lowered as a result of depression (Laskowski 2017) Such changes apply to any form of exercising, from running and walking to lifting weights.
After examining the empirical evidence related to fitness and depression, I believe that regular exercise can be an effective treatment for depression. In my hypothesis I stated that regular exercise could make an effective treatment for depression due to the endorphins released, which is true, but I found exercise to have more benefits which could positively affect a person’s depression. These benefits include the chance to lower a vitamin D deficiency do to time in the sun, and heightened self esteem caused by changes in physical appearance and performance as a result of regular exercise over a period of time. These benefits would effectively treat cases of depression where self-esteem and self-image issues are a factor, as well as cases where a vitamin D deficiency is evident. Unfortunately, while exercise could affectively treat depression related to endorphin imbalances, vitamin D deficiencies, and self esteem issues, those are only a few causes and supporting factors of depression (Roberts 2014). Due to this, regular exercise as a treatment would only be effective in some cases of depression, as others may require a treatment that is not remotely similar. Despite this limitation, it is still an option to be explored.
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