Stress, anxiety and low mood are common experiences right now for many of us. The incidence of depression and anxiety is rising. Social isolation, lack of employment and relationship tension are taking a toll. Drinking more alcohol and eating sugar are common coping mechanisms. Exercise may be the last thing you feel like doing, but it does have proven mood benefits. It doesn’t take much time at all. Did you know that just one hour of exercise per week is all it takes to reduce the risk of depression?

A study was conducted by the Black Dog Institute of Australia and results were published in the American Journal of Psychiatry. In the largest and most extensive study of its kind, the analysis involved 33,908 Norwegian adults who had their levels of exercise and symptoms of depression and anxiety monitored over 11 years.

The research team found that 12 percent of cases of depression could have been avoided if people undertook just one hour of exercise each week. According to lead researcher Associate Professor Samuel Harvey from Black Dog Institute and UNSW, "We've known for some time that exercise has a role to play in treating symptoms of depression, but this is the first time we have been able to quantify the preventative potential of physical activity in terms of reducing future levels of depression. These findings are exciting because they show that even relatively small amounts of exercise - from one hour per week - can deliver significant protection against depression”.

It is great to hear that such a small amount of exercise can offer significant health benefits. Obviously more exercise would be better, but a number of factors can stand in the way of a person’s ability to exercise. Depression often takes away the motivation to look after yourself. Depressed people are often less inclined to eat well and exercise regularly. Chronic pain and injuries can stand in the way of exercise, and they of course can also lead to depression.

The key to maintaining a regular exercise habit is finding an activity you enjoy, and starting slowly and gently, so that you don’t exhaust yourself or create an injury. Exercise causes your brain to release feel-good chemicals (endorphins and neurotransmitters) and anti-inflammatory chemicals. By reducing inflammation, exercise helps improve your mood and relieve pain.

Chronic, low grade inflammation greatly contributes to fatigue, pain, low mood, and an inability to lose weight. The symptoms of a great variety of health conditions are aggravated by excessive inflammation. It is also thought that long-term high levels of inflammation in your body speed up the aging process and increase your risk of heart attacks, strokes, and cancer. Inflammation basically causes wear and tear inside your body; it wears your body out more quickly.

Studies have shown that depressed people have higher levels of inflammatory chemicals such as C-reactive protein and cytokines in their bodies compared to people who are not depressed. When people are given pro-inflammatory cytokines, they typically experience more symptoms of depression and anxiety. Even brain imaging scans of people with depression show that their brain has increased neuro-inflammation. Think about when you have a cold or flu; your body is in an inflammatory state. You probably experience symptoms typical of depression, such as disturbed sleep, a depressed mood, fatigue, poor concentration, and a foggy head.

How else can you improve your mood and reduce the risk of depression? Magnesium helps to ease depression and anxiety. So does tyrosine. I call it mood food because it acts as a building block to help your brain produce the neurotransmitters dopamine and noradrenalin. For more information, see my book Help for Depression and Anxiety.