How Does Exercise Help Depression?

In the present lifestyle scenario, depression has become a very common mental illness. However, if diagnosed on time, it can well be treated. Depression and exercise are intensely associated with each other. The health benefits of exercise are already known to many. However, what many people do not know is that exercise can help improve the symptoms of a number of mental illnesses as well including depression.

How Does Exercise Help Depression

A Brief Overview of Depression:

Definition of Depression

Depression is an illness of the brain that is serious and quite common amongst many. It affects the way one feels, the way they act and think, negatively. It leads to a feeling of loss or sadness and one loses interest in everything that they enjoyed once.

Sometimes, this condition is so extreme that the person fails to function normally at home or at work and face emotional and physical problems. A depressed person has a very injured self-esteem and there is hopelessness, helplessness and a feeling of worthlessness that can keep them feeling “down”. The activities that were once-pleasurable for a person are not at all enjoyed by the same person. They feel constantly burdened and this feeling of dejection makes them lose their connection with the loved ones.

Causes of Depression

There are a number of reasons behind why one feels depressed. It can be genetic and may pass on from one generation to the other. It can also be due to hormonal changes in one; a stressful or emotional event or loss of a loved one. Research studies have shown that certain medical conditions can also lead to the occurrence of depression. In fact, a number of medicines are there that can depress a person, when taken for a long term.

Symptoms of Depression

Whatever the cause of depression may be, the usual signs and symptoms of this condition are –

However, the fortunate part of depression is that it is highly treatable. Along with many other treatments and therapies, the most common method of treating depression is to exercise.

How Does Exercise Help Depression?

Exercise can help a person in overall wellbeing. Not only can it make a person physically fit, but also the mental condition stays positive and energetic with the help of exercises. In that case, it is not necessary that one has to perform vigorous and intense physical exercises to stay fit. Even mild to moderate exercises are equally beneficial.

The body “feels good” due to the presence of a chemical named Endorphin. When you exercise, the body releases this chemical into the bloodstream. This chemical can improve the natural immunity of a person and thus alleviate pain, by changing one’s perception about it. Hence, when Endorphins are released, your pains go off and you feel good. However, to make the body release endorphins, you need to perform vigorous exercises. On the other hand, mild to moderate or gentle exercises can make the body release another beneficiary chemical named Serotonin. Serotonin can make the body prevent insomnia and also lift the mood, when you feel “down”. The release of the neurotransmitter called norepinephrine is also stimulated by exercise. This helps a person directly in improving or lifting mood.

So, the ways exercise can help the body prevent depression are, by –

  • Inducing a good night’s sleep
  • Increasing energy levels
  • Providing social support
  • Providing distraction from tension, hopelessness, helplessness, worthlessness and worries
  • Increasing self-esteem – as one takes an active role in self-recovery
  • Reducing loneliness when it is performed with others.

Benefits of Exercises in Treating Depression

  • More Energy: As you start with mild to moderate exercises, you will start feeling the change in you. Your heart beat will increase gradually and you will feel more energetic to get into intensive exercising sessions as well as in other daily activities that you didn’t feel like doing, due to sheer lack of energy.
  • Better Sleep: Exercise can promote or induce sleep and help in bettering the sleeping patterns. If you practice a little mild to moderate exercises during morning or in the evening, it will help you to sleep better. Moreover, yoga and other stretching exercises can help in promoting a good night’s sleep.
  • Stronger Resilience as a Benefit of Exercise to Help Depression: It is quite common amongst many depressed people to resort into drug or alcohol dependency, when in stress, anxiety or depression. Exercise can help in improving the body immunity, reduce stress and anxiety levels or even reduce depression to a great extent. Thus, the body does not need to resort into these dependencies.
  • Higher Self-Esteem as an Exercise Benefit to Help Treat Depression: When, with the regular exercise regime, you achieve the small goals that you set or when exercise gives you the energy to practice your daily activities at home or at work place in a better way, you feel satisfied with yourself. This improves your self-esteem and thus, reduces depression. In that way, exercise is an investment that you make to improve your body, mind and soul.
  • Better Thinking as an Outcome of Exercise to Help Depression: With depression, thinking is highly disrupted. Often, people forget certain things as they fail to concentrate and as the brain cells keep dying. With exercises, new brain cells are grown and hence, you can remember things and this also helps in forming your thinking.

Things to do Before Starting Exercise for Depression

When you are depressed, the first major step that you might find difficulty in taking is to start exercising. Since you are depressed, it is quite likely that you will feel sceptical about how you will exercise. However, exercising does not mean a full day devoted to strenuous activities, train the body at the gym throughout the day, run miles after miles monotonously or keep the body sweating.

You do not have to spend hours in these activities; just about 30 minutes of practicing mild to moderate exercises at least 5 times a week is enough. It is entirely up to you, whether you want to do a continuous 30 minutes of exercising or break that session into three 10 minute sessions throughout the day or two 15 minute sessions twice a day.

  • Exercise Can Help Overcome the Mental Blocks in Depression: Mental blocks or obstacles about exercises are very common. Even mentally fit people might have them before starting off their exercising session. Hence, it is quite usual that people, who already have a mental illness, will certainly struggle with this. Here are the common mental barriers that you will have and how you will have to get past them.
    • Feeling Dejected and Hopeless: The common symptom and mental problem with depression is that the sufferers think that there is no hope left in the world. This hopelessness and feeling of dejection stops them from starting off exercising. In contrary, exercise can help them to find the path to hope. Even those, who haven’t done any exercise ever or are in the “ground zero” level of having any hope, can be benefited with exercise. You only have to start with a few minutes of mild physical activity and you will feel the change.
    • Feeling Stressed and Fatigued: Since a depressed person is seriously fatigued and stressed, he or she might think physical activity or exercise will only worsen the condition. However, actually, even if you walk for 5 minutes or just do a bit of yoga and other such free hand exercises, you will feel the change in you, feel better about yourself and feel energized to do more.
    • Feeling Bad About Yourself: What is common amongst most depressed people is that they feel bad about themselves. They think that they are of no good and hence, they lose any confidence on themselves that they can do anything good. Regardless of your age, weight or fitness level, this feeling can be common. However, what is more important is the fact that there are people, who feel the same way. They too feel bad and hopeless. When you surround yourself with such people, you actually understand that there is always hope. You can set small goals, try and achieve them and regain the confidence.
    • Feeling Burdened: Depressed people often think that by adding a new exercise regime to their daily activity list is an added burden. The fact is that exercise is not a burden, rather it helps in reducing a number of other burdens and helps you to do everything else in a better way.
  • Getting Started with Exercise for Depression: The following steps would help in starting exercise regime that will help in treating depression and also help in maintaining the schedule:
    • Always start with mild exercises and then gradually build up the intensity level.
    • Set goals that are short-term and are realistic. Do not set goals too high that you might fail to achieve as this will only add to the depression.
    • Always choose activities that you enjoy doing. Exercising does not mean going to the gym and train your body to stay fit with the help and assistance of physical training instruments. You can walk, jog, swim or garden also.
    • Know that it takes time to see the benefits of exercise. At least a minimum of 8 weeks is a must that you need to invest on exercising.
    • Take breaks. Do not push yourself so much that you lose the fun of it. After all, it is meant to lift your mood and not depress you further. When you can’t continue, just take a break and start off right from there, the next day.

How Much Exercise is Required for Depression?

Usually, it is recommended that you indulge yourself in about 150 minutes of mild to moderate exercise regime in a week. This can be divided into 20 minutes to 25 minutes of exercising every day or you can do it for 30 minutes 5 days a week and take a break of two days a week. The activity time is absolutely flexible and depends entirely upon you, and how you want to do it. Just make sure that you start with mild activities and then move on to moderate ones.

Types of Exercises that Help to Overcome Depression

  • Running as an Exercise to Help Depression: Running is the best aerobic or cardio exercise that can release Endorphins and decrease pain, anxiety and depression. A moderate walking session of 20 to 30 minutes a day is highly recommended for those, who have depression problems. When running is being considered, jogging and power walking too are useful.
  • Exercise Regime for Muscle Building to Help Depression: When it comes to strength training, research studies have proven that they can reduce depression. When doing this, take the assistance of a physical trainer.
  • Yoga as an Effective Exercise to Treat Depression: Freehand exercises are very useful for those, who have depression. In that case, the yogic postures are extremely beneficial. Yoga can calm the mind and make it peaceful, reducing depression and anxiety. A few yoga posturespranayama and meditation for a few minutes a day or at least twice a week is useful.

So, rather than be depressed, it is quite helpful that you try and get rid of it with natural procedures like exercises. Taking anti-depressant medicines is not a solution to depression on the long term basis as those could have additional side-effects. Exercise can make a huge change. In case you find it extremely difficult in motivating yourself, talk to a psychologist or counsellor who will help in teaching you how to lift your mood. Mental health professionals can also help in reducing depression through counselling and therapies which can work as an additional technique in treating depression along with exercises.

Also Read:

Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA
Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA
Written, Edited or Reviewed By: Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA Pain Assist Inc. This article does not provide medical advice. See disclaimer
Last Modified On:April 6, 2018

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