Depression and anxiety are ever-present in society today. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, by middle age around 50 per cent of people will have had, or will have, a mental illness. Yet, despite the pervasiveness of mental illness, roughly half of individuals who feel they have suffered from depression or anxiety have never sought professional help.
Managing mental health is often done through antidepressants, mood stabilizing medication and psychotherapy. However, an increasing body of evidence supports the essential role of exercise in managing depression and anxiety. Some studies even find outdoor activity to be as effective as medication.
“Exercise outdoors has a really powerful impact, particularly on people who are struggling with depression and anxiety,” said Shirley Hunt, the co-founder of Up and Running Guelph, an organization that provides running and walking programs for women suffering from mild to moderate depression or anxiety. “On improving mood and lowering stress levels, things like that,” Hunt added.
Up and Running has had positive effects on those who participate.
“I’ve seen them (Up and Running participants) go from thinking they’re not athletes to really feeling like ‘Oh, I can do this. Look at me — I’m actually doing this,’” said Hunt. “A lot of them end up continuing to run after and some of them end up mentoring groups.”
The University of Guelph and the University of British Columbia have begun a study with the Up and Running program with promising early results. They have found statistically significant results indicating participants have higher life satisfaction, less depression and more confidence.
“It really depends on the level of depression,” said Hunt. “Some people are very functional, they get to go to work and stuff. But in some cases it’s hard to get out of the house, and so knowing this group is waiting — and it’s not competitive, it’s really low-key — brings them out.”
While being outdoors clearly has positive effects, another aspect of Up and Running is its camaraderie and being being part of a supportive group. “I think it’s a kind of magic combination,” said Hunt. “All of the things that you get from nature, combined with exercise, combined with peer support. A sense of community. I think it’s a triple whammy.”