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Hitting the gym better than Anti-depressants?

This was re-posted from the Australian Spinal Research Foundation article 9 March 2017.

Depression is a worldwide issue. To give you some idea, it’s the number one psychological disorder in the western world1. And not unlike the common cold, it doesn’t discriminate between age groups or gender assignment. Depression is growing in all age groups, the largest increase noted in the younger generations, in our teenagers. At the rate of knots this psychological issue is developing, by 2020, it is estimated to be the second most debilitating condition behind heart disease.

Think about it, the neuroscientists at the University of Bern2, have. Traditional treatment for depression is usually with antidepressant medication and psychotherapy. But the study published in CNS & Neurological Disorders – Drug Targets, found that sport and physical activity partially encounter the same neurophysiological changes as antidepressants.

There are several types of medication for the treatment of depression. Most of them work on blocking the reuptake of the neurotransmitters we use to make us feel happy and upbeat. By blocking the reabsorption of serotonin – “the happy hormone”, dopamine – “the motivator hormone” and norepinephrine – “adrenaline”, a person has more of these targeted neurochemicals actively bathing their brains and producing positive feelings.

The researchers conducting the study, found that sport and physical activity brought about similar changes in the brain, that are normally only achieved through antidepressant drugs2. Not only did it affect the brains capacity to absorb serotonin and dopamine but epinephrine levels also increased. As a by-product of the surge in these neurochemicals, it was noted that the level of neurogenesis (new brain cells) in the brain also increased. This increase in neurotransmitters was noted to prevent the death of brain cells in the hippocampus, the area of our brain responsible for our emotional stability and memory. It’s also the part of the brain that is very vulnerable to stress. Low levels of neurogenesis in the hippocampus have been linked with depression and other psychiatric disorders.3 Researchers also noted a reduction of the stress hormone cortisol. Overall the effect on the brain of exercise was similar to the brain chemistry changes we see with psychotropic drug therapy.

The researchers found a large number of meta-analyses showed a positive effect of sport and physical activity on depression. Whilst the research supports that exercise is an effective tool for reducing symptoms of depression the study did not conclude how often or how long one should exercise.

“Unfortunately, the meta-analyses do not allow any conclusions as to how often and how long weekly sport should be pursued,” says Mirko Wegner, lead author in the study. “But one can see that sport and physical activity alleviate depression. For instance, we were also able to determine that the effectiveness of sport is greater with depressive disorders than with anxiety disorders.”

The obvious benefit of exercise is the lack of side effects so often encountered when using drug treatments to combat depression. It’s also can be more cost effective than medication and there’s the added benefit of all the wonderful aspects of a healthy lifestyle. Exercise has benefits on most systems of the human body, your brain, your body and your longevity. So what are you waiting for? Go hit the treadmill and enjoying all those extra neurochemicals and additional brain cells.


[1] Seligman, M. E. P. (1990) Learned Optimism.

[2] Effects of Exercise on Anxiety and Depression Disorders: Review of Meta- Analyses and Neurobiological Mechanisms. Mirko Wegner, Ingo Helmich, Sergio Machado, Antonio Nardi, Oscar Arias-Carrion, Henning Budde. CNS & Neurological Disorders – Drug Targets, 2014; 13 (6): 1002 DOI: 10.2174/1871527313666140612102841

[3] Major depression: a role for hippocampal neurogenesis? Lee MM, Reif A, Schmitt AG. Curr Top Behav Neurosci. 2013;14:153-79. doi: 10.1007/7854_2012_226. Review.

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Working long hours?

There’s a new magic number. 39. That’s the number of hours you should be working in any given working week. That is, unless you want to get sick. That’s a substantial number less than the 49-hour week limit that was brought in around 80 years ago as the internationally recognised number of what a person should be slogging out for a wage.

A new study, published in the journal of Social Science and Medicine1 has found that working beyond 39 hours a week puts employees at risk of developing mental health problems. With almost a quarter of Australians working longer than 39 hours per week. Using data from 8,000 working adults as part of the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in an Australian Survey.

When the study assessed men and women separately they found the numbers didn’t add up the same way. The healthy work limit for men was higher around 47-hours per week on average. This was substantially lower for women who came in around 34-hours per week once all their other commitments were taken into account. Men generally spent much less time on household or domestic responsibilities than women do.

“Women are doing other work – much more extra work outside the labour market,” said co-author of the study, Professor Lyndall Strazdins of ANU.

The researchers believe what’s at the core here is that we need to have a cultural shift away from thinking that working longer hours means you’re doing well at your job. Strazdins advice after reviewing the study was to suggest that employers look at ways to support their staff to work shorter hours.

“My message is to their managers and our policy makers to start a national debate on how long is too long,” she said.

Moreover, she pointed out, that an employee shouldn’t feel they have to work long hours in order to continue to remain employed.

In some ways it’s a case of monkey see, monkey do. If everyone else is working long hours and the cultural expectation of the company is that one works long hours, then the changes need to come from the top. However, one only needs to see the effects in such studies as these of people suffering from mental health issues, anxiety, depression to realise that whilst working is important, so too is the capacity to live a healthy life.

Is it perhaps a case of working smarter not harder?

We can also look at implementing successful ways to negate stress in our bodies, from making sure you’re adjusted regularly with chiropractic care, eating well, yoga, exercise, meditation and planned leisure time. If we wait for others to start taking care of our well-being first, it may be too late to restore the damage. Preventative care now, may well halt the effects of long work hours and poor work life balance before it takes hold.

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