By Daniel G. Amen, MD

Have you ever heard the term “runner’s high?” Is it really possible to feel that good, just from exercise? You bet it is. Exercise can activate the same pathways in the brain as morphine and increases the release of endorphins, natural feel-good neurotransmitters. That makes exercise the closest thing to a happiness pill you will ever find.

Boost your mood. Physical exercise stimulates neurotransmitter activity—specifically norepinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin—which elevates mood.

Fight depression. Exercise can be as effective as prescription medicine in treating depression. One of the reasons why exercise can be so useful is because it increases brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF).

BDNF is like an anti-aging wonder drug that is involved with the growth of new brain cells. Think of BDNF as a sort of Miracle-Gro for your brain. BDNF not only grows new brain cells, but it is also instrumental in putting the brakes on depression.

The antidepressant benefits of exercise have been well documented in the medical literature. One study compared the benefits of exercise to those of the prescription antidepressants. After 12 weeks, exercise proved equally effective as taking antidepressant medication in curbing depression. After 10 months, exercise surpassed the effects of these drugs. Minimizing symptoms of depression isn’t the only way physical exercise outshined antidepressant medications.

Like all prescription medications for depression, there are negative side effects, such as sexual dysfunction and lack of libido. Plus, these drugs may ruin your ability to qualify for health insurance. Finally, popping a prescription pill doesn’t help you learn any new skills.

On the contrary, exercise improves your fitness, your shape, and your health, which also boosts self-esteem. It doesn’t affect your insurability, and it allows you to gain new skills. If anyone in your family has feelings of depression, exercise can help.

I teach a course for people who suffer from depression, and one of the main things we cover is the importance of exercise in warding off this condition. I encourage all of these patients to start exercising and especially to engage in aerobic activity that gets the heart pumping. Of course, you should check with your doctor before beginning any exercise program.

The results are truly amazing. Over time, many of these patients who have been taking antidepressant medication for years feel so much better that they are able to wean off the medicine.

Fighting depression is very important if you are overweight because depression and obesity go hand in hand. A 2010 review of the existing scientific literature on the subject involving 17 studies and 204,507 participants showed a significant association between obesity and depression. The link appears to be stronger in women.

Research shows that people who are depressed are more likely to be overweight and experience a faster rise in BMI and waist size than people who are not depressed. On the flip side, weight problems also increase the risk for developing depression.

Which came first, the depression or the weight problem, remains to be seen. But there is no doubt in my mind that getting depression under control can help you manage your weight, and losing the extra pounds can help alleviate depressive symptoms.

Ease anxiety. Although the research on the effects of exercise on anxiety isn’t quite as voluminous as the evidence on exercise and depression, it does show that physical activity of just about any kind and at any intensity level can soothe anxiety. In particular, high-intensity activity has been shown to reduce the incidence of panic attacks.

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