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Exercise — The New Happy Hour

Posted Jul 29 2009 12:19am

It’s five PM and your work day is finally coming to an end!  The stress of the day is still with you pushups as you get into your car and start home. The highway is at a standstill and so there is no break from the stress. As the road begins to open up, you realize, a drink is starting to sound pretty good.

How do you handle stress?  Does the stress of your day make you want a beer, wine, or cocktail to relax?   Or perhaps your doctor has prescribed an antidepressant?  Or if you are a smoker, maybe you just can’t wait for that first cigarette when you leave work.   I don’t have to tell you that smoking isn’t good for you and we need to keep our alcohol intake at moderate levels.

So what can you do to more effectively shake off the stress of the day?  Exercise.  Not only is exercise a good stress reliever, it has even been found to be effective against the depression that can come as a result.

Researchers have found that exercise can work at least as well against mild to moderate depression as any other treatment, including drug therapy. Previous studies have suggested that exercise programs can take weeks to improve depression, stress and/or anxiety, but a new study showed that even a single workout can provide immediate benefits in boosting the mood of the severely depressed. 1

A study at Duke University was one of the first to test a four-month aerobic program in people with moderate to severe depression. Sedentary men and women over the age of 50 were asked to participate in aerobic activity for 30 minutes three times per week.

They were compared to two control groups that were similarly depressed.  One group was treated with Zoloft and the other group with Zoloft and exercise combined. Patients in all three groups had equally significant reductions in symptoms of depression (60-65%). Surprisingly, combining drug and exercise therapy had no added benefit, but it did improve the speed of response.

While drug therapy was effective eventually, exercise therapy really excelled in the long term. Six months after treatment, only 8% of the exercise group relapsed compared to 30% in the drug therapy group. 2

Exercise seems to improve the body’s ability to handle stress more easily, enabling you to tolerate life’s challenging demands more easily.  Animal studies show it does this by acting on the neurotransmitters of the brain that govern the stress response.

Neurotransmitters in the brain such as norepinephrine are altered by exercise and produce changes similar to those of antidepressants.  In so doing, exercise enables us to better tolerate stressful situations and to be calmer. The studies found exercise also changes peoples’ perceptions of themselves, providing an elevated self-esteem, a sense of personal mastery, a positive self-regard and reduced negative thinking.

In addition to aerobic activity, several studies show that resistance training is just as effective against depression.  So the evidence is clear, exercise is a good prescription for stress!

The next time you need to blow off the day, elevate your mood and de-stress.  Instead of hitting happy hour, hit the gym!


  1. Warner, J. Exercise May Lift The Cloud of Depression. 2006.
  2. Marano, H.E. Move to Boost Mood.

[ Ed. Note: Melissa Hawthorne, RN, BSN, CSCS is the owner of Priority Fitness Personal Training and Wellness.  She is a Master Trainer for the Resist-a-ball Company, ISCA Personal Training, Kick-boxing, and Beamfit.   Melissa serves as a fitness consultant for the LaValle Metabolic Institute.  To learn more, click here.]

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