Depression is a common problem today with estimates that one in ten of us have it. At the same time, one fourth of our population is taking medication for a psychiatric diagnosis. As a physician and Biblical counselor, I would guess that after marital family problems, depression is one of the more common things for which people will come to counseling.
Early in my career as a physician, I read an article by Dr George Crane, a noted physician and newspaper columnist, about the way he helped those who came to his office with depression. Crane said that his approach was borrowed from an older physician who had treated depressed individuals for years. The elder doctor advised patients to do the following things when faced with sadness that just would not go away.
First, he would send them back to work because staying at home with their sorrow, just made for long days. He told them to go to church and to read a chapter daily of the gospel according to Luke, a fellow physician. He also told them to go walk a couple of miles a day.
Seems simple enough and I am certain some will say too simple. However, this past month a research study was published that once again says the old doctor was right. There was good news in Runners’ World magazine about depression and running.[i] It has long been held that depression is in some way genetically determined. Many have considered themselves destined to depression because they have several family members who struggle with sadness and depression. Well, it appears that family history does not make us a sitting target.
Research published in the journal “Depression and Anxiety” looked at the question of how physical activity affects the rate of depression for those who have a family history of it.[ii] What they found was that individuals who are more physically active are less likely to become depressed. The effect was enough that individuals who exercised were 20% less likely to be depressed than those who did not exercise. The benefit of exercise was significant enough to offset the effect of having a family history of depression. The research concluded that 35 to 45 minutes of exercise a day would be a benefit to our mental health.
Of course, I would be the first to agree with findings of this research. They don’t call me runningdoc for no reason. I have been running for 50 years. When I started it was simply a plan that would allow me to eat cherry or coconut cream pie anytime I wished. Eventually, it became obvious to those who knew me that my emotional well being was tied to my mileage. I ran at lunch time because it broke the day up and my nurse would testify that it calmed me down. I can’t say that I avoided depression because of running. However, I can say that when I cannot run, I miss it.
As I seek to help people who struggle with sadness or worry, exercise has always been a significant part of the “prescription.” For most people, it is as effective as the current crop of medication. It has very few side effects and the costs are negligible. The old doctor was taking care of patients decades before there were medications to treat it. And, he was correct. That two-mile walk helped.
[i] Elizabeth Millard, Runners World, 11/22/2019. Electronically Retrieved.
[ii] Karmel W Choi, et al. Physical activity offsets genetic risk for incident depression assessed via electronic health records in a biobank cohort study. Depression and Anxiety, 11/5/2019.