When Is Exercise Better Than Therapy?

Sometimes you just have to head to the gym as opposed to the doctor's office

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Exercise is cheaper than therapy and you’re likely to lose weight and improve your fitness, which has been proven to boost mental health. But do these two reasons alone justify your skipping a few sessions a month with a professional?

The answer is “yes” – most of the time.

“I’ve suffered from depression a few times,  Jill Brown, personal trainer, fitness instructor and a wellness coach, says. “I was in Colorado teaching part-time while having a full-time job, living by myself. The doctor wanted to give me anti-depressants and I wanted to battle it with exercise.”

It works until you get injured. “This is the only downside,” Brown says. “There is a point where you’re risking overuse injuries.”

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Working out is better than therapy for people who have not been diagnosed with clinical depression, she adds. It’s the best way for immediate stress relief and boosted mood because of the release of endorphins, brain chemicals that trigger a positive feeling in the body, similar to that of morphine.

Depression is the most common mental illness in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). A quarter of Americans are affected. Research has shown that working out helps beat the condition and more phycologists prescribe it. “I’m helping someone right now, whose doctor called me and told me ‘You really need to work with this woman,’” Brown says. The patient is now making tremendous progress.”

Exercising also helps the brain produce norepinephrine which is important for dealing with stress and anxiety in an efficient way, according to the American Psychological Association. Work in animals since the late 1980s has found that exercise increases brain concentrations of norepinephrine in brain regions involved in the body's stress response.

“I grew up with lots of fighting around me and I found that the more I moved, the more settled I felt,” Brown says. The best drills are explosive exercises like sprints, jumping jacks or mountain climbers that use a lot of energy in short time and trigger the release of endorphins. “That made me feel much better,” she adds.

There are two basic types of training, Brown says: Strength and endurance. The former involves working out as hard as you can to get strong, but this is where the danger comes in. “High-intensity is great for stress relief but when you start getting addicted to the endorphins and dopamine, then you get injured,” she adds. “That’s what happened to me.” (Dopamine is strongly connected with the reward and motivation system of the brain.) “You’re craving exercise because you’re trying to fight depression.”

Endurance training – aerobic activity with proper breathing – is what Brown recommends. Exercises include cycling, hiking, walking, light jogging, and swimming. “A moderate intensity that you can maintain for a long time,” she adds. Other benefits are feeling great from the extra endorphins, looking good and being able to sustain an intensity level.

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A good exercise Brown swears by is swimming. “I’d used to get in my grandparents’ pool and do 100 laps. I’ll get this euphoric feeling and my mind and body were calm.” There is an incredible emotional release, she says. “I cried sometimes.”

Boxing is another high-intensity workout for stress relief, which is especially popular among women, Brown says. “It’s a big thing again.”

People who suffer from severe depression should see a professional, Brown adds. If this is the case, self-treatment only may backfire. “I’d make exercise part of the treatment plan.”

More readings: 

6 Workout Secrets for Longevity

Don’t Ever Do These 16 Things Before Working Out

It’s Your First Day at the Gym: Here’s What to Do