There has long been a link made between depression and getting outside, and as our understanding of the brain’s complexities is unravelled by scientists and psychologists that link is getting stronger.
Exercise has been proven to release feel good endorphins that make us feel better and improve mood. As recently as April last year the Mental Health and Physical Activity (MEPA) published findings that showed the simple act of going for a regular walk can have a substantial effect on depression. This is positive news for general practitioners who have been trying to move away from prescribing drugs that work by altering the brain’s chemical balance, and moving towards the prescription of exercise. Funny how we are going full circle, drugs were once seen as the cure for depression but now they are often being recognised as simply masking the symptoms rather than providing the magic pill.
The MEPA report also go on to say that walking also had similar effects to other more vigorous exercise such as running or football. This is a hugely positive finding as it means an effective treatment for depression is available to all ages. There is still further research to be completed to identify how much is required, how intensive and how regular but speaking from a personal level i always feel better if i get outside whether it is a 5 minute stroll or hiking 15 miles across mountainous terrain.
Daylight helps too?
These findings got me thinking; is it the physical activity that is providing the positive effect or is there something else going on? is it just the exercise that is providing the therapeutic effect, or is t the fact you are outside?
Seasonal Affective Disorder is now a proven condition affecting people in both the northern and southern hemispheres due to the seasonal fluctuations in light levels. According to the leading resource on the matter www.SAD.org.uk, 12 million people across Northern Europe could suffer from seasonal depression caused by lack of sunlight. This is exacerbated by our sedentary indoor lifestyles whereby we do not get enough sunlight. For me the drive to get outside on sunny day is irresistible and although i’m not a sufferer of SAD i do feel a hell of a lot better about life on a bright sunshine filled day than a dark, overcast day.
Sunlight entering the eye has been proven to stimulate the production of the hormone seratonin and suppress the production of the sleep hormone melatonin. This is thought to be the root cause of SAD – we dont get enough sunlight and we reduce seratonin production and increase melatonin making us feel lethargic, grumpy, low libido and all of the other symptoms of this disorder.
So regardless of what causes your depression there is definitely a benefit in getting out for a walk. I feel that a combination of working your muscles in the natural environment and getting some sunshine gives you the double whammy that improves your mood when you get out for a walk.
You may ask, what do you do on those dreary snowy/rainy winters days when you cannot get outside? – i have 3 solutions.
1) Buy some decent waterproof Walking Clothes (Jacket, gloves, pants and gaiters), base layers & thermals, quality socks and GoreTex hiking boots
2) Excercise Indoors – whether it be joining the local leisure centre or gym, an exercise bike in the back bedroom or a brisk walk up and down the stair it all helps
3) Seasonal depression can be really serious so if you are a sufferer you can buy a SAD Lamp that gives you a light boost even on the darkest days. They have been used in the NHS since the 1980’s but make sure you choose a medically proven model and do a bit of research first.
Full details of the MEPA report can be viewed here: