If you ask most Americans what the greatest country on Earth is, most would emphatically say “The United States!” But there’s a troubling statistic that cuts to the heart of that sentiment: Americans take more antidepressants than people in any other country.
According to Business Insider, 11% of Americans over the age of 12 take an antidepressant. Iceland, Australia, Canada, and Denmark round out the top five countries.
If living here is so great, then why are we so depressed?
Is it our quality of life? Is it because we work too much? Is living in a competitive dog-eat-dog society too stressful? Is the American population genetically predisposed to depression?
Could the real problem be that American pharmaceutical companies are really, really good at selling antidepressants?
A new study out of the Vermont Medical Center published in the journal Global Advances in Health and Medicine suggests that if Americans spent more time at the gym, they’d need to take fewer antidepressants.
For this study, psychotherapist and lecturer David Tomasi and his team built a gym for the patients at the Vermont Medical Center’s inpatient psychiatry unit. The researchers led the hundred-or-so patients in 60-minute, structured exercise routines that included cardio, strength training, and flexibility.
The routine had an overwhelmingly positive effect on the patients’ reported happiness.
Ninety-five percent of the patients reported feeling better. Sixty-three percent reported feeling happy or very happy instead of sad, very sad, or neutral. And 91.8% said they felt pleased with their bodies after the research ended.
The results were encouraging for Tomasi who believes that doctors prescribe far too many psychiatric drugs.
“The general attitude of medicine is that you treat the primary problem first, and exercise was never considered to be a life or death treatment option,” Tomasi said, according to Big Think. “Now that we know it’s so effective, it can become as fundamental as pharmacological intervention.”
After the study, the researchers believe that exercise should be prescribed to some patients before psychiatric drugs and that mental health facilities should be built with gyms.
“The priority is to provide more natural strategies for the treatment of mood disorders, depression and anxiety,” Tomasi said. “In practice, we hope that every psychiatric facility will include integrative therapies — in our case, exercise in particular — as the primary resource for their patients’ psycho-physical wellbeing.
The research suggests that exercise should be used to target anxiety, depression, anger, psychomotor agitation, muscle tension and to address stressors and triggers. It can also be used “to develop a more balanced and integrated sense of self.”
It is believed that exercise enhances the production of endorphins, natural chemicals in the brain that work like painkillers. Exercise is also shown to boost norepinephrine, a neurotransmitter that affects mood.
However, exercise shouldn’t be seen as a magic bullet for treating all psychiatric disorders.
The debilitating effects of depression can make it nearly impossible for patients to get out of bed, let alone strap on some Nikes and run a mile.
“I go through days when working out simply isn’t in reach. I’m too fatigued and feeling too hopeless to do so much as open a curtain,” Beth McColl, who suffers from anxiety and depression, wrote for Self.
“Feelings of lethargy are common in people with mood disorders and exercising when you’re feeling that low-energy can be as close to impossible as it gets,” she continued. “Asking us to transcend the symptoms of our illness and do something that isn’t currently within our reach is a patronizing strategy.”
Tomasi’s work is important because it gives doctors and counselors more options to treat major psychiatric disorders. It’s also a ringing endorsement for the power of exercise.
Americans are known for their sedentary lifestyles, maybe if we got up and moved a bit more many of us could break free from being dependant on pharmaceutical companies for our happiness.
Photo credit: JIM YOUNG/REUTERS, Pixabay.