According to popular wisdom, exercise is supposed to be a panacea for depression and stress, right? Then how do we explain recent news reports about various elite athletes at the top of their games, winning championships, medals and the adulation of their fans, yet struggling with debilitating depression? In some extreme cases, this has even led tragically to suicide.
The impact of exercise on health is well documented. Less well known is the role of exercise on stress and depression. There is a growing school of thought suggesting that stress plays the significant role in a huge number of current health problems ranging from medically unexplained symptoms and syndromes, including chronic fatigue and pain (fibromyalgia), stomach and digestive issues, insomnia, arthritis, heart disease and some cancers.
We know that vigorous strenuous exercise increases or enhances our ability to deal with pain and discomfort. It boosts our mood, facilitates the release of endorphins that trigger positive feelings, and acts as an analgesic. Exercise is definitely a worthwhile pursuit.
However, contrary to some current opinions, exercise is not going to cure depression or other stress-related health conditions for either us regular folks or elite athletes. Why is that?
The term ‘stress’ is bandied around with such vigorous frequency, it must be one of the most overused words in the English language. In general, the term usually refers to a state of heightened discomfort – mental and physical – that a person is aware of experiencing. However, stress is not necessarily a state of mind and body that a person is aware of. It is entirely possible for a body to be in a state of stress that can be measured through elevated heart rate, blood pressure changes and the presence of stress hormones, without the individual having conscious awareness of it.
So what exactly is ‘stress’ and what causes it? Stress is a massive topic in itself; however in an attempt to be brief, I would argue that ‘stress’ is triggered by an imbalance, blockage or build-up of toxic emotions. Thinking does not trigger these emotions, rather they form part of a complex physiological feedback system and arise as a result of our interaction with our immediate environment. So if you think that simply changing your thinking will change your stress, think again, it won’t; a more comprehensive approach is needed. These emotions impact upon body and brain, affect our thinking and cognition, and modulate the nervous, immune and endocrine systems. The emotions are the cause and stress is the result.
While exercise will have beneficial effects for your health, it does not address the causes of emotional imbalance or blockage that lead to health problems such as depression. For elite professional or Olympic athletes, deep emotional responses to the pressures and demands of their sports will form a piece of the puzzle that makes up the root cause of their problems.
My advice? Continue exercising (or training for that Olympic gold medal), but if you do suffer from depression, anxiety, digestive complaints or other medically unexplained symptoms or syndromes of pain or fatigue, remember that in order to find a lasting solution you will need to address the root cause of your symptoms!
Only by addressing the cause, not the symptoms, will you find your way back to full health.