Exercise Away Job, Social Woes


Shot down at the local hook-up spot? Ridiculed during your office presentation? Run, literally, out of that dark hole of depression.

A study by Michael Lehmann, Robert Schloesser and colleagues at the National Institute of Mental Health indicates that physical exertion and an enriched environment—think the great outdoors—can prevent and even reverse the depression that can be triggered by defeating social situations.

The authors took male mice—typically lone wolves who fight when they see each other—and exposed them briefly, one at a time, to a very aggressive, dominate male. Quickly, the test mice were exhibiting submissive behaviors, such as humans do when they are defeated during social interactions. The report indicates that mice who were the losers of repeated social defeats were visibly cautious and subdued, even in the judgment of observers who did not know whether they were winners or losers in a conflict.

After two weeks, they were divided into two groups and, after the encounter with the dominant mouse, one half returned to a sparse cage, while the other group went back to a cage with running wheels and tubes of various shapes and sizes.

The mice that were able to run the exercise wheels and explore an interesting environment began recovering from the encounters and stopped acting submissive. The ones returned to the boring cages with no chance to be active continued to act submissive and developed depressive behaviors, such as showing a reduced inclination to explore, greater anxiety and a reduced interest in the sweet solutions which mice usually prefer.

If you are thinking, “I’m not a rodent so this can’t apply to me,” consider the mouse behavior observed that researchers rated:

  • How boldly the mice explore an unfamiliar cage—depressed mice acted like wall flowers;

  • How much time they chose to spend in a dark (safe) place vs. light (risky) compartments, which is much like depressed humans who sit with the blinds closed; and

  • The extent to which they indulge their taste for something pleasant like sweetened water—depressed humans lose interest in simple pleasures, too.

In the March 23, 2010, edition of Molecular Psychiatry, Lehmann, Schloesser and colleagues asserted that this study demonstrates that psychosocial stress in mice can cause behavior resembling human depression, which an environment that promotes exercise and stimulation can alleviate.

The authors also point out that in humans, physical exercise has beneficial effects on depression and stress resilience. Forms of entertainment such as exercise and outdoor recreation could have longer lasting changes for many suffering from mild depressive symptoms than pharmacologic treatment, without the accompanying side effects.

So the next time your boss degrades your great idea or the hot, new neighbor forgets meeting you for the 10th time, don’t scurry away to your cubicle or draw the drapes of your crib. Pump away that downer feeling in the gym. Or, better yet, take a hike with Mother Nature.

For more information visit the National Institute of Mental Health.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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