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Run your nuts off


A couple of recent studies have added to the evidence that exercise is one of the best things you can do to attain and maintain good mental health, especially when augmented with mindfulness. At Rutgers University they found clinically significant reductions in depression scores among test subjects who followed meditation sessions with workouts on treadmills or exercise bikes. University of Manchester researchers claim to have demonstrated that exercise regimes improve outcomes for young people who recently experienced first episode psychosis.

The first thing to say about these studies is that they share most of the problems that plague mental health research. Small sample sizes, inadequate or non-existent control groups, lack of valid placebo comparisons, dubious methods of measuring symptoms, failure to recognise the problems inherent in capturing subjective experience as objective data, lack of long-term follow-up, … In other words, business as usual. However they add to a substantial body of evidence suggesting exercise and mindfulness are at least as effective as psychiatric drugs and talk therapies in treating mental illness. Unfortunately that’s not saying much.

No treatment is without side-effects. Exercise can cause musculoskeletal injuries as well as asthma, strokes and heart-attacks. Meditation has been associated with adverse mental health outcomes in up to 7% of practitioners. But there are also many positive ‘side-effects’ to both of these treatments. What can be said with confidence is that they compare very favorably indeed with the physical and psychological damage routinely caused by psychiatric drugs, which are now among the biggest killers in the West and its single greatest source of iatrogenic harm.

Mental illness is poorly defined, as are objective measures of its seriousness. Medical science has struggled for over a century to find effective and humane therapies with very little success. The long term prognoses for those suffering a psychotic illness are no better now than they were in the 1920s and worse in the ‘enlightened’ West than in developing countries without access to modern psychiatry. Despite (or because of?) the staggering increase in mental health interventions in recent decades the incidence of diagnosed mental illness continues to grow by leaps and bounds and suicide rates are again on the rise after having steadily declined ever since the Depression. By far the most effective evidence-based treatment for a wide range of mental disorders – including depression, mania and psychosis – is a placebo. Whatever we’re doing it’s not working very well.

But I figure if you’re going to try anything you might as well try a good diet, exercise and meditation. They’re just as likely to help as the far more expensive treatments flogged by Big Pharma and much less likely to harm. If they don’t work you still might be crazy but at least you’ll be physically healthier. Perhaps even enlightened.

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  1. I have only personal, anecdotal evidence, but exercise sure as hell works for me! I’ve run my way through both temporary personal miseries like heartbreak, and through more serious bouts of depression, and when I’m running regularly and eating well, I’m definitely more resilient both mentally and physically.


  2. Great post. I dig the fact that you could think so objectively about something that would seem to be a given. It’s all a matter of degree. There are always shades of grey and exceptions to the rule. Hope you are having a great Easter warmest regards!


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