Can Depression that Started in Sweden be Treated with Exercise?

man runningImprovement to mood is one of the most obvious effects of exercise. But can exercise actually be used as a treatment for depression?

An article recently featured in the Stockholm daily newspaper Dagens Nyheter says it can.  Jill Taube, a Swedish psychiatrist, has written a book about how exercise can help to cure mental illness. She points to studies that show the effects of exercise not only last longer than those of antidepressant medication, but physical activity appears to prevent the recurrence of depression better than antidepressants.

Exercise: A Prescription for Depression

Taube’s exercise ‘prescription’ echoes what the health and fitness experts have been saying for at least 20 years: a combination of cardio and strength activities for 30-45 minutes, at least 3 times a week. Obviously those who have not been exercising need to take it easy to begin with and build up to this. But the idea that there is something people can do themselves about depressed mood is great news for those who want to recover from depression and need more hope in their lives (although it might depress the drug companies!).

Antidepressent Use in Sweden, an Increasing Trend

What makes this research so remarkable is that Sweden has one of the highest rates of antidepressant prescription. According to OECD statistics, Sweden has the 3rd highest consumption rate of antidepressants in Europe (after Iceland and Denmark). And antidepressant prescription is on the rise in Sweden. The National Board of Health and Welfare (Socialstyrelsen) has issued guidelines to try to cut the rise of prescribed depression medication and encourage the use of talk therapy. But these changes will take time because the culture around prescribing antidepressants needs to change. A survey of GP attitudes from 2004 indicated that most doctors considered drug treatment with antidepressants alone was effective and sufficient in most cases of depression. Less than half the doctors thought that psychotherapy was required as a complement. This is despite reliable evidence of the effectiveness of talk therapy against moderate depression and the combination of counselling with medication being considered best practice. There is also evidence that effectiveness of antidepressant use really depends on the therapeutic relationship between doctor and patient.

Relief for Anxiety and Depression through Exercising

As a doctor, Taube is concerned with biochemical explanations of how exercise actually works and the article in Dagens Nyheter explains some of this. For the layperson it’s enough to know that it does work. Therapists are familiar with the way depression often goes hand in hand with anxiety (I often describe them as hanging around together, like schoolyard bullies) so it’s no surprise that exercise appears to help relieve anxiety as well.

Taube, who has herself experienced depression, is a dancing enthusiast but explains that other exercise like taking a walk or spin class can give the mind a break from Anxious Thoughts. We know that mental health difficulties can generally lead to poor physical health not only because problems like anxiety and depression stop us from getting out and enjoying life, but because the drugs that are prescribed for them have a slowing down effect on those who take such drugs. So people who are taking medication because they are affected by anxiety, depression and other mental health problems often gain weight and suffer cardiovascular difficulties or musculoskeletal problems because they don’t move themselves as much. Of course it is important to still seek the help of health professionals, particularly if you are experiencing a severe depression or having thoughts of wanting to end your life. Talking together regularly with a doctor, counsellor, therapist or psychologist is a better alternative to just taking drugs on your own.

In 2012 I will be continuing Walking-Talk Therapy  for those who want to have therapeutic and coaching conversations ‘on the go’. Going for a walk together through Rålambshovsparken, along Norr Mälarstrand or around Riddarfjärden is a great physical alternative to sitting down. Of course, if you prefer to talk inside, we can still meet over a tea or coffee in my private consulting room at Fridhemsplan. And for those who are outside of Stockholm or prefer more privacy, online counselling is always available over the internet.

Send me an email or call me on 08-559 22 636 and leave a message if you would like to make an appointment.

Jill Taube’s book “Själ och Kropp” is widely available from book retailers and online, but unfortunately only in Swedish at this stage.