Exercise and Depression: How Being Active Can Help You Beat The Blues

Physical fitness has been at the forefront of modern health and wellness media for decades. Much research has been done on how exercising for at least 30 minutes a day contributes to overall health. Research has shown that regular exercise helps improve sleep, increases energy and helps stabilize chronic health conditions like high blood pressure and bad cholesterol. With all of its benefits, it makes sense to add exercise into daily life, but research has also shown that exercising regularly can help in the treatment of depression.

Exercise Boosts Endorphins

Many marathon runners report feeling a “runner’s high” after logging a certain number of kilometers. According to the Mayo Clinic, “Physical activity helps bump up the production of your brain’s feel-good neurotransmitters, called endorphins. Although this function is often referred to as a runner’s high, a rousing game of tennis or a nature hike also can contribute to this same feeling.” Increasing endorphin levels in the brain helps to lift your mood, but it doesn’t take vigorous exercise. If you’re in a depressive funk, it may be difficult to find motivation to do much of anything, but if you can, try walking outside for 30 minutes. It won’t take as much energy as a full throttle workout, but it will help lift your spirits.   

Exercise Helps Clear the Mind

One technique that many therapists recommend for mild depression is meditation, particularly mindfulness meditation. Forbes.com recently published an article called "For Depression Treatment, Meditation Might Rival Medication." In it, author Alice G. Walton statesMindfulness meditation may not cure all, the research found, but when it comes to the treatment of depression, anxiety, and pain, the practice may be just as effective as medication.” Exercising is an excellent way to practice mindfulness. Some exercises, like yoga, work mindfulness techniques into the practice. Yoga is a study of mind and body, so it’s excellent for anyone who wants this balance. Other exercises, such as ballet or sports lessons, require the participant to focus solely on the task at hand. In these classes, it’s easy to practice mindfulness, since your focus is on your body and its form. While you’re concentrating on the dance steps or the moves you need to master to play your sport, your focus will be temporarily shifted from your symptoms.  

It Can Complement Your Medication

While exercise alone may not be enough to treat your depression, it can be extremely effective as part of a treatment program that also includes medication and cognitive behavioral therapy. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, “Science has also provided some evidence that physically active people have lower rates of anxiety and depression than sedentary people. Exercise may improve mental health by helping the brain cope better with stress.” The organization warns, however, that exercise alone may not be enough to have a significant effect on long-term mental health. But its benefits are enough that the AADA recommends adding exercise to your overall treatment, stating, “Some people may respond positively, others may find it doesn’t improve their mood much, and some may experience only a modest short-term benefit. Nonetheless, researchers say that the beneficial effects of exercise on physical health are not in dispute, and people should be encouraged to stay physically active.” 

While people with severe cases of depression may not feel physically capable of exercising, it is worth doing when symptoms aren’t overwhelming. You don’t have to train like an elite athlete to reap the benefits of exercise. Something as simple as a 30 minute walk in the park can help to boost your spirits. If you’re suffering from depression, talk to your doctor about adding physical activity to your treatment regimen and begin reaping the physical and psychological benefits.