Recently I read Hamlet, Shakespeare’s masterpiece and arguably the greatest play in the English language. The greatness of this play lies in the fact that it relates to the human condition and so transcends time. The main character is Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, who is quickly described as the “melancholy” prince. The word “melancholy” is defined in the Oxford dictionary as “a feeling of pensive sadness, typically with no obvious cause”, or what we in today’s world might call depression. Hamlet has in his melancholy “lost all mirth, forgone all custom of exercises”, or in plain English he has lost all sense of fun and stopped exercising. Stopped exercising! Well perhaps that was Hamlet’s tragic flaw.
While Hamlet seemed unaware of the connection between exercise and melancholy, today’s science is clear. Recently, several reviews of available evidence were published and they seem to strengthen the case for exercise as an effective prevention and treatment of depression. They found that the link between exercise, fitness and mental health is considerable.
People who have had a heart attack are at particular risk of developing depression. This could be due to several different reasons. Heart disease can change a person’s life, which can lead to sadness and depression and ultimately stress. Stress, in turn, may lead to high blood pressure and abnormal heart rhythms, putting these people at higher risk for another heart attack and death. A vicious circle. With no proven treatment for depression in people with heart disease except possibly exercise, researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology wanted to know if doing enough physical activity to meet the current physical activity recommendation could decrease the risk of depression after the first heart attack.
To do this study they used the data from the Nord-Trøndelag Health Study in Norway and investigated if pattern of leisure time physical activity among patients ten years prior to their heart attack was associated with depressive symptoms after the heart attack. They found that those physically active 10 years before their heart attack had 20% lower odds of depression than those inactive during the same time period and importantly those who traded their inactivity for activity had a better protection against depression .
So when it comes to depression, exercise goes a long way. Perhaps Hamlet’s melancholy, which shaped his actions throughout the play resulting in his demise, could have been remedied with some physical activity.
Nina Zisko, PhD student at CERG