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Exercise Cures Depression: Mens Sana In Corpore Sano

Exercise has long been recommended to alleviate depression, but now scientists from Yale University have isolated a gene (VGF) within the hippocampus area of the brain which is responsible for these effects, leading to hope of a new, more effective cure for depression. 

The VGF gene is stimulated during exercise and works to produces a chemical which is involved with the growth and development of nerve cells. When scientists tested this chemical on mice they found that it influenced their behaviour in a similar way to antidepressants in humans. They hope to develop from this a pill which would be more effective than current anti depressants: whereas traditional antidepressants work by altering the balance of chemicals within the brain, the new pill would have the potential to go much further- it would be able to change the links between brain cells and even the actual structure of the brain itself.

"Mens sana in corpore sano" was the motto of the Ancient Greeks and Romans. It appears their folk wisdom was correct. Increasingly, science is finding ways of directly biologically reproducing the benefits of healthy lifestyle. The "polypill" contains aspirin, cholesterol and blood pressure lowering agents to protect people from the unhealthy effects of modern lifestyle, including consumption of animal fats. Increasingly, people can take a pill rather than exercise, diet, meditate, relax, sleep and obtain the benefits of these practices. Is there anything wrong with such technological short-cuts? Do means matter?

As a general point, means matter where one means is associated with other different valuable outcomes. So, to my mind, exercise is superior to VGF-related pills for at least two reasons. Exercise can involve a deep connection with the natural environment which is itself intrinsically valuable apart from its contribution to elevating mood. Secondly, some forms of exercise, like skiing, dance, mountain climbing and surfing, involve so-called "flow experiences" which are not in themselves hedonic or happiness-associated, but represent an alternate of consciousness where one is integrally connected with the activity, rhythm and performance. Whether or not one values environmental connection or flow experience, the point is that exercise and diet may have other effects than their health promoting benefits which improve well-being.

The challenge then raised by these kinds of research is to identify what other benefits there are from the parent activity which the pill does not substitute. It is hard to imagine pills substituting the benefits of laughter and connection with other human beings that a fine lunch with wine and friends provides. It is hard to imagine pills ever reproducing the experience of riding deep inside a tube or of dancing with a beautiful partner, or the feel of fresh feather powder snow on your face as you ski the first perfect run of the morning.

But if pills ever did substitute these human goods, means would not matter. For the moment, the biological substitutes to healthy lifestyle remain a useful adjunct or second place substitute.

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