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Exercise better than pills in battling depression, UAE doctors say

ABU DHABI // Exercise should be the first line of defence in the fight against depression after research published in the Middle East Journal of Positive Psychology hailed its benefits in releasing ‘feel good’ brain chemicals.

Doctors advocate physical activity as the best remedy in many cases, but the simple solution is often overlooked in favour of medication that can be expensive and carry side effects.

Restrictions on health insurance coverage for depression treatment could also be preventing sufferers from seeking out help for what is becoming an increasing problem in the UAE.

Dr Zahoor Khan, a family medicine consultant at King’s College Hospital London Medical & Surgical Centre, Abu Dhabi, said brain chemicals released during exercise can benefit depression sufferers.

“Depression is an illness like any other,” he said. “There can be a stigma attached and there are cultural differences about how people perceive depression. People can be embarrassed to admit there is a problem to their doctor, but there really is no need.

“Any plan must be realistic and can be incorporated into a routine. It must be something you enjoy. That could be a brisk walk, or a game of tennis.”

Exercise benefits mental health by increasing ‘feel good’ chemicals dopamine and seratonin.

Medication is offered to those with depression that replicates those chemicals, but can be addictive, cause weight gain and panic attacks.

“Mental health problems are also not covered by most insurance plans in the UAE,” Dr Khan added.

“All these treatments come at a price, so there are certain barriers in the UAE. We see a lot of patients who suffer from depression, it is very common.”

Activity rates have declined in the GCC region and vary between 9 to 42 per cent for men, and 26 to 28 per cent for women.

Depression is considered by the WHO as the world’s leading cause of disability.

The search for accessible, low cost and appealing treatments for depression is gaining pace the world over, with the increasing popularity of positive psychology in the Gulf Cooperation Council and UAE.

Dr Arun Kumar Sharma, a specialist neurologist at Medeor 24×7 Hospital, Dubai said exercise is proven, and effective.

“When you exercise, you lose weight so that gives someone the idea of success that they are reaching a target,” he said.

“Some patients are receptive, it often depends on the level of education. Less educated patients prefer a quick fix, such as medication.

“I try to explain drugs should only be a last resort. Depression can be a vicious circle.”

The most recent study by Dubai Health Authority in 2010 found just 19 per cent of national adults attained the gold standard of 30 minutes of daily moderate exercise, five times per week.

A worrying figure for men aged 40 to 59 was just 7 per cent hit that target, while only five per cent of national women 60 years plus met the standard.

The DHA said that for both genders, rates of activity dropped as age increased but that as education levels rose, so did activity.

Dr Shakeel Ahmad, a specialist in Internal Medicine at iCARE Multi-specialty Clinics in the UAE, said he is seeing more women suffering from depression than men and often, social isolation is a contributing factor.

“Depression is becoming more common, about with 5 per cent of the UAE population believed to have some form of the condition,” he said.

“Every one is so busy and stressed, there is not the time for social interaction or exercise. That creates problems.

“In my experience in the Middle East, women are more confined to the home and do not socialise as much as men or take part in physical activies.

“Because of that, they are more prone to depression. Exercise should always be the first option in treatment.”

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The National