Students Using Exercise and Diet to Help Treat Depression, Anxiety


Can people who suffer from depression and anxiety find relief through exercise and diet? It seems almost too easy — a treatment that is free and has only positive side effects — but studies on the subject are very promising. While diet and exercise may not be enough to treat all forms of depression, they could be a very important part of a multidisciplinary approach.

Oklahoma Students Find Peace Through Yoga

The Oklahoma Daily recently interviewed two University of Oklahoma students about the impact of yoga on their depression and anxiety. The students, Samantha Milburn and Abbey Beard, both felt that their yoga classes were helping them to be more at peace in their daily lives.

Milburn, who takes medication for clinical anxiety, credits healthy eating and yoga with helping her take control. “I overthink everything, and for some reason when I do yoga, it just completely disappears for an hour,” said Milburn. Beard expressed similar sentiments: “I didn’t realize how much it affected my life,” she said, “but not going (to yoga) affected how I … dealt with other events.”

The two students both study yoga with UO grad student Laili Boozary, who says her classes are intentionally therapeutic, as she believes the majority of her students struggle with depression or anxiety.

Healthy Body, Healthy Mind

The idea of a body-mind connection is both controversial and obvious. Controversial because it is linked to debunked medical practices, new-age philosophies, and Eastern medicine rather than being rooted in Western research; and obvious because the brain and nervous system are organs of the body that are linked to every other organ of the body in a complex system of neurotransmitters, oxygen flow, and hormones. There is no doubt that emotions impact the body, making us susceptible to heart attacks, ulcers, and even cancer. But can improving the health of the physical body improve mental health as well? Studies say, yes.

Lifestyle Changes Boosts Mental Health

A Portland State University study linked a diet high in fresh fruits and vegetables to positive mental health among teenagers, and specifically found that a high intake of vitamin A reduced symptoms of depression. Vitamin D deficiencies are also linked to depression. Other studies have found that regular exercise boosts mood, increases energy, improves people’s interest in sex, and reduces stress and depression. Some researchers have even suggested that mental health professionals have “significantly underestimated” the importance of lifestyle changes and overall health in treating mental illness.

Yoga and Meditation

Milburn and Beard, the students who were interviewed for the Oklahoma Daily article, are getting their exercise specifically in the form of yoga. Yoga seems to have an especially positive effect on stress, depression and anxiety. While some modern yoga classes are primarily physical, or even aerobic, traditional classes are slow-paced and deliberately meditative. Instructors like Boozary are as interested in helping students learn to quiet the mind and take control of their thoughts are they are in building strength or flexibility. Students are constantly reminded to let go of whatever thoughts arise, to keep bringing their attention back to the breath or to the sensations in their bodies. Classes usually end with a guided meditation. Recent studies are finding meditation to be as effective as medication in treating depression and anxiety, so yoga classes offer a multifaceted approach to mental health.

Lifestyle change is difficult, and people who are battling the lethargy of depression or the limitations of anxiety find it especially difficult to make changes, attend classes, or adopt new practices like yoga. Some forms of mental illness are more difficult to treat than others, so it’s  important to work with a doctor or therapist who can guide you and offer alternatives in your therapy.