Physical activity – to save the body and mind from disease?


According to the WHO statistics, more than 264 million people globally suffer from depression disorder annually. It’s the most common illness worldwide, killing up to 800,000 people a year. The biggest barrier to fight with this disorder is a problem with access to treatment. Between 76% and 85% of people in low- and middle-income countries receive no treatment for their disorder. Another barrier which limits the fight against depression, also in developed countries, is the social stigma of the disease.

So, there appear to be two questions - what to do to fight this disease and how to prevent it? And it is surprising that the world of science knows the answers to both questions very well, and yet we don’t follow the recommendations.


How to prevent depression

A healthy diet, drug avoidance, socialization, stress reduction are just a few of the recommendations for reducing and fighting depression. But there is another very important factor that often remains neglected - regular physical activity. Of course, one can't say - "play sports, and you won't get depression or other diseases”. 

This is not how it works, although, according to a study published in 2019 in JAMA Psychiatry, even undemanding physical activity is of great importance for improving the well-being of healthy people, but also those already struggling with the disorder. And most importantly, it’s not about 1.5 hours of intensive training every day. It’s completely enough to have 15 minutes of physical activity every day or 30 minutes every 3 / 4 days. It can be a more intensive walk alone or with a dog, it can be a short run to the store. 

During the time of restrictions of outdoor activities, one can concentrate on short exercises using body weight. Push-ups, sit-ups, squats - that's really not much and makes a big difference. All the more, when we look at the conclusions of scientific researches, which claim that regular physical activity can have the same effects on some people as cognitive-behavioral therapies or treatment with drugs.

But what actually makes physical activity work? The answer is simple - the human body itself, producing chemical compounds such as Serotonin, Endorphins, Dopamine or Noradrenaline. What exactly is their impact?

  • Serotonin - above all, it improves the mood and makes one feel good. It also increases appetite and regulates sleep cycles, which is often a problem for people with depression.
  • Endorphins (happiness hormones) - they reduce stress and pain. They bring man into euphoric states.
  • Dopamine - improves motivation, energy and well-being.
  • Noradrenaline - mobilizes body and brain to act. It makes us feel fresh, improves appetite, memory and concentration.  

It would seem that these relationships have primarily short-term effects, usually occurring during or immediately after the physical activity itself. However, It turns out, that this isn’t quite true.


Does it work in the long term?

According to Wendy Suzuki's speech – "The brain-changing benefits of exercise" during TEDWomen 2017, the above-mentioned chemical compounds have a much longer effect. Physical exercise doesn’t only improve mood here and now, but also affects the physiognomy, anatomy and functioning of the brain itself. 

With regular exercise, they affect the Hippocampus, the brain element responsible for memory, among other things. 3 to 4 training sessions a week after a minimum of 30 minutes also affect the production of completely new brain cells. They are responsible for such functions as abstract thinking, planning, writing or reading. The exercises also improve concentration, which is very important for the proper performance of any mental task. This makes it even more important in a world full of notification.

It is also worth noting, that the exercises themselves influence longer and longer states of good mood, which will persist even in case of lack of physical exercise. The general mood of a person improves significantly, there are moments when one feels happy. All these positive effects occur only because occasionally the body is provided with a minimum dose of exercise, which at the same time allows reducing the occurrence of diseases accompanying the sedentary lifestyle such as atherosclerosis, hypertension or diabetes. 

Physical activity also has a protective effect on the brain. The more activity a person performs, the more its brain develops. The hippocampus increases its volume and thus becomes more resistant to diseases such as depression, but also dementia and Alzheimer's, which appear with age.


Isolation and exercise

Physical activity is also very important during the obligation to stay at home, which most of the world population experiences now. Isolation for a few or more days can cause stress and tension. If it lasts more than 10 days and it isn’t known when it may end - post-traumatic stress disorder can occur. This condition appears among others by soldiers returning from the war!

That's why, especially now, it’s important to remember about the regular activity. It cannot completely prevent depression. After all, it is not a therapy prepared by a specialist, and the disorder itself consists of many different factors. But physical activity can certainly reduce the risk of getting depressed, make you feel a little better and help you take care of your condition. So we encourage you to do regular simple exercises at home. It's not difficult, but it can have a surprising effect!

And for those who feel bad because of isolation or for any other reason, please contact a specialist. The psychological counseling centres currently offer online or telephone consultations. There are also free mental health helplines in almost every country, which you can call at appropriate time to get help.


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