By Omar Shamout

About 19 million people in the United States suffer from some form of depression ranging from mild to severe. It's hard to imagine that something as seemingly intangible as the feeling of sadness is governed by science, but it's true. Emotions, like everything else found inside our bodies, can be broken down into chemical equations. The upside of this is that you can sometimes take charge of which emotions your brain generates by altering the things you do every day. Yes, there are a number of pharmaceutical treatments for depression, but studies show that our bodies produce a natural defense that can combat this debilitating mental condition.

What are these organic wonder drugs, you ask? And how do we get them? The answer is endorphins, and you get them through exercise. These chemicals interact with receptors in our brains that send a euphoric feeling throughout the body to combat pain in all its forms. Many people have dubbed this phenomenon "runner's high."

Evolution has gifted us with an anatomy filled with a vast repository of resources that can fight many of the obstacles nature will throw at us. The key is understanding how to unlock the door and utilize all the tools we have available at our disposal. So, with some hard work and dedication, we might be able to discover the secret to one of our self-healing properties.
  1. Consistency. Because depression is a chronic problem that can't be cured by an hour in the gym, sufferers must realize that it takes a strong commitment to an aerobic routine to see any improvement. Even then, endorphins alone may not be enough to aid in more severe cases. Research studies conducted by Harvard Medical School found that daily aerobic exercise over a sustained period of time can have exactly the same impact on lowering rates of depression as antidepressant drugs can have. The length of the daily workout is crucial though, as workouts of less than 15 minutes produced negligible results compared to those of 30 minutes or more. Workouts don't have to be high impact, either. Low-impact routines involving walking and light stretching are equally effective.

    Prescription drugs may work faster, but the benefits of aerobic exercise on our brain have been shown to last longer, while also improving other physical conditions such as heart health and blood pressure. You must make a long-term commitment, though, because we are talking about a lifestyle change, not a quick fix. A serious problem demands a serious solution.
  2. Drugs are addictive; exercise is not. You might be tempted to take an “easier” route for self-medication. Drugs such as morphine and cocaine also trigger the release of endorphins in your system, but their addictive qualities are dangerous and deadly, not to mention illegal. Overeating can also trigger the release of endorphins, but all of these activities will only make you feel more depressed in the long term once the guilt sets in, and the cycle will only become harder to break. Recognizing any destructive personal triggers of your depression symptoms is vital to understanding how your psyche got to where it is now. Exercise is one of the few coping mechanisms that is not addictive, so embrace it as a welcome and positive addition to your life.
  3. Exercise can be social. Willpower, you say? But, I'm depressed! I have no willpower! Here's where other people can come in. Exercise doesn't have to be a solitary activity, and the Mayo Clinic recommends social activities as a way to cope with symptoms of depression. Maybe try joining a group dance or yoga class, joining a pickup basketball game, or softball league. Tennis, anyone? For some people, this is the way to stop thinking of exercise as a chore. The more we turn our workout into a fun activity with friends, the easier it is to think of it not as "work" at all, but rather an "out"ing. Get it?
  4. Mushrooms. The more we learn about phytonutrients—those that come in a small enough quantity to be missed on a food label (this is a layman's definition only)—the more we should admire ancient cultures. These culinary delights have been feuded over for decades until, for some reason, we'd decided they were pretty much empty calories. The study of phytonutrients has taught us that warring over fungi may have held some rationale after all. Mushrooms are loaded with antioxidants and are thought to boost the immune system, help ward off some cancers, and have high amounts of potassium. Furthermore, researchers at Penn State University have found that mushrooms may be the only food to contain an antioxidant called L-ergothioneine.
  5. Tea. Despite a ton of positive press over the last, oh, century, tea and coffee are still the devil's brew in some circles. Perhaps even worse is how many coffee and tea restaurants have bastardized these natural brews into sugar- and fat-filled dessert items. Both tea and coffee, in their basic states, have no calories and many healthy benefits. Between the two, coffee is arguably more popular, most likely due to its higher caffeine content. But tea is probably healthier. Both have a high amount of antioxidants but stats on tea are almost off the charts. A recent study on calcium supplementation in elderly women, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, showed that bone mineral density at the hip was 2.8 percent greater in tea drinkers than in non-tea drinkers.
  6. Little things add up. Just because you need to get in 30 minutes of cardio a day to improve your mood, doesn't mean you have to do it all at once. Simple things like walking or biking to work, taking the stairs, parking farther away, and the like really do add up, and count as exercise even if you don't have your cross-trainers on. If you do want to wear those shoes, but still don’t have the time for a long workout, consider trying 10-Minute Trainer® for a game-changing blast of cardio.
  7. Be honest with yourself. Understanding your limits and setting realistic expectations are crucial to establishing a routine that you can sustain over a long period of time and enjoy simultaneously. If you're not used to exercise, don't expect to run for an hour nonstop, because you won't, and will end up getting frustrated with yourself, which is exactly what you don't need! Ease into your routine by setting manageable and attainable goals, and build up your confidence. Overdoing your exercise routine will not make you twice as happy, so there's no need to harm your body while taking care of your head.
The bottom line is that exercise should be considered one part of a strategy to overcome depression and get yourself back on track, and shouldn't be considered a one-way ticket to Happytown. Changing your lifestyle is difficult, but a regular aerobic routine can give your brain the added boost it needs to conquer your destructive habits and combat negative emotions.