Beating high depression rates in wealthy countries with exercise

When stress gets you down, a few simple steps to a happier place can be all it takes to lift your mood.

The World Health Organisation reports that depression is the second largest contributor to poor health and shorter lifespans in people aged 15 to 44.
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You don't need a diagnosis of clinical depression to be fed up at this time of year - statistically, February is the most morose of months.

While folks in northern Europe bemoan the lack of natural sunlight for their SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) moods, citizens of the Emirates can look to such new year hangovers as the arrival of credit card bills or the failure to stick to that health or fitness resolution as reasons not to be cheerful.

Even retail therapy may not be enough to lift our spirits. A new study sponsored by the World Health Organisation (WHO) reveals that the trappings of material wealth, rather than buying us happiness, could actually be an additional reason for feeling the blues.

After interviews carried out among 89,000 people - across 18 different countries - the findings, published in the journal BMC Medicine, revealed that people living in more affluent societies are more prone to bouts of depression than those in economically poorer countries.

While about 21 per cent of people in France and 19 per cent of the population in the US reported suffering an extended period of depression at some time during their lives - in comparison, countries with the lowest rates of depression were China, at 6.5 per cent and Mexico at 8 per cent.

According to WHO, depression is the second leading contributor to poor health and shorter lifespans among people between the ages of 15 and 44. The researchers pointed to the higher rates of depression reported by people living in wealthier nations as being down to differences in societal expectations for a good life. "There are a lot of people in the USA who say they aren't satisfied with their lives," explained the study co-author Ronald Kessler, a professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts. "In wealthier nations, expectations know no bounds, while people in other countries are just happy to have a meal on the table."

Equally, a growing body of research suggests that opting for some simpler, less taxing and often less expensive pursuits can raise our happiness levels and keep them high. Making progress in something we enjoy is, according to psychologists, a key component in raising one's mood.

"Every little improvement has left me feeling like a million dollars and the rewards continue to grow," explains Eva Braam, 31, from The Lakes in Dubai. When stress was taking its toll, Braam headed for the gym. But while the cardio aerobic classes helped to an extent, it was signing up to Zen Yoga sessions that rejuvenated her mood.

"I didn't expect yoga to improve my mental wellbeing or to make me feel less stressed. I was only doing it to get some balance into my fitness regime, a counterweight to the intense cardio sessions.

"But the regular yoga practice has led to changes in my mental strength. I feel lot more relaxed, happier, and more patient, not only with the people around me, but with myself."

Certainly the benefits of exercise and its ability to trigger the release of "feel-good" endorphin hormones has long been recommended as a means of not only raising moods, but also of successfully combating problems such as long-term depression. But you need not sign-up to a swanky gym to reap such rewards - simply taking a regular stroll along the Corniche in Abu Dhabi could, according to experts, provide an almost instant mood-booster.

"We should be encouraging people in busy and stressed environments to get walking regularly, even for short bits of time," explains Jules Pretty, a researcher at the University of Essex in the UK where a review of 10 studies found that moving outdoors for as little as five minutes improved both mood and self-esteem. "Exercise near a body of water had the greatest effect on mental wellbeing, we found," adds Pretty.

But a much more cooling option, almost guaranteed to give you a lift too, would be to check out some of the acts at the Ramada Plaza Doha, at Zinc Crowne Plaza, and the Grand Millennium TECOM, Dubai. Those venues and others are hosting comedians from the Laughter Factory this week ( and a new study by a team at Oxford University in England confirms that laughter certainly is the best mood medicine.

"Laughing triggers endorphin activation," says the lead author Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary anthropologist. "There is a possibility that these endorphins help to 'tune' the immune system too."

Dashing off to the comedy store isn't easy when you find yourself in an emotional rut during the working day though. The temptation may be to boost your mood during your break with a shopping spree, but experts recommend avoiding that temptation. "Resist the urge to treat yourself," suggests Gretchen Rubin, whose book The Happiness Project, has become a bestseller in the US. Rubin says that while the pleasure of shopping may be instant - the feelings of guilt can make people unhappier in the long-term. Instead, she's an advocate of more smiling through the simplification of life and, in a climate like Dubai's where advice like "take a stroll to lift your mood" isn't always practical, she offers suggestions on other measures to try.

"You might consider trying to strengthen your relationships to your colleagues; people enjoy work more when they have friends there," said Rubin. "Or think about physical comfort - try cleaning off your desk. For most people, outer order contributes to inner calm, and having a clearer workspace helps boost energy and spur creativity."

"My own most unusual happiness-boosting move is to jump," adds Rubin. "Just jump up and down a few times, or run down the stairs, or jump over a puddle, or do a few quick jumping-jacks. Jumping is goofy, light-hearted, childlike and energetic. It gets your blood moving and lifts your spirits."

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