There was a flutter in the chicken coop this week as research published in the British Medical Journal strongly suggested that exercise does not help with depression (see the Guardian report here).
The claim seemed counter-intuitive, but the evidence was pretty conclusive. People with experience of depression protested (see here and here), whilst Clare Slaney saw a hidden agenda at play - the dread hand of austerity around the throat of the prescription gym membership.
There has been evidence that exercise helps with depression (see, for example, the BBC News website here and here) and what about all those endorphins that exercise releases? On Twitter Professor Cary Cooper said the study focused on severe depression only. I'd like to read the BMJ to see for myself, but it's by subscription only and times are tough.As compensation there was a pretty well balanced report, reminding us that this study tested prescribed exercise only, in the Daily Telegraph here.
If the study did involve only those living with severe depression then I can well imagine how exercise came out as ineffectual. Might as well whistle down a storm. But thinking of the guys I have helped - people with moderate levels of depression - life style changes have often been beneficial. Sometimes it's difficult to work out whether people become more active as their depression lifts; or is it that the depression lifts and enables them to become more active?
I'm reminded of a story about Milton Erickson, the psychiatrist and hypnotherapist. He told a man living with depression to count the chimney pots on his way home from Erickson's house. The man did this, mainly to humour the old fellow; but by the time he had arrived at his own home he did feel quite a bit better. Erickson's intervention changed the man's thoughts, feelings and behaviours. Instead of looking down he was looking up, instead of ruminating he was counting chimney pots, instead of sitting at home on his own, he was walking down the street meeting people - you get the picture. The man had a strategy for maintaining his depression and Erickson flipped it round.
On some of the NLP training I've done I've been encouraged to walk with 'power and grace' and if you can behave differently then you will tend to think differently and feel differently. Like Gregory Bateson I think we're built that way - we are cybernetic.
Will walking with power and grace lift our mood? Possibly. Will it shift clinical depression? Probably not. It'll be the same with exercise (maybe).