Evidence suggests that exercise can help ease the symptoms associated with depression, a serious but common mood disorder that affects an estimated 19 million Americans. Depression can develop in anyone, but research has shown in many cases it is associated with a chemical imbalance in the brain or stress caused by a traumatic event. The symptoms, which can include a persistent feeling of sadness, a loss of interest, changes in appetite, decreased energy levels and the inability to sleep or concentrate, are often debilitating. It's essential to seek professional help from a trained psychologist or psychiatrist if you feel as though you may be experiencing the symptoms associated with the disorder.
It's likely your psychologist will recommend incorporating regular physical activity into your regimen. While exercise alone is likely not to be enough for overcoming depression, research has shown that it can help improve mood in people with mild or moderate depression and may support recovery in people with severe depression. Unfortunately, despite exercise clearly being beneficial for helping combat depression, it's an often-underused treatment method.
What the Research Says: Exercise's Impact on Depression
Scientists have known for decades that exercise can help manage symptoms associated with depression. A review from 1981 that examined all previous related research concluded that exercise improved mood, self-concept and work behavior in individuals diagnosed with depression. In 1999, a team of researchers found that a 16-week aerobic exercise regimen helped ease depression in men and women with depression. The study also found that exercise was just as effective at reducing symptoms of depression as anti-depression medication, suggesting that exercise may be a good treatment option for those wishing to avoid medications. Most recently, an April 2016 study found that participants that jogged for 30 minutes were better able to overcome emotionally challenging situations compared to those who didn't exercise. Additionally, research suggests that these beneficial effects that exercise have on depression are long lasting.
The Science of Exercise: How it Reduces Depression
Experts have found that exercise stimulates the release of endorphins, which are chemicals that circulate throughout the body to reduce the perception of pain and naturally improve immunity. Research also suggests that endorphins improve mood, either directly or indirectly by stimulating the release or norepinephrine.
Some findings suggest that a rise in body temperature following physical activity is also responsible for reducing depression symptoms. An increase in temperature in certain brain regions can stimulate a feeling of relaxation.
Another possible mechanism, though research backing the idea is somewhat limited, is the distraction hypothesis. The distraction hypothesis suggests that when a person with depression is exercising, they are momentarily distracted from their depressing thoughts.
Lastly, scientists have found that regularly participating in exercise provides a sense of self-efficacy. This means that a person begins to believe they possess the necessary skills to complete a task and that they have better control on life. Exercise makes people feel good about their accomplishments and thereby can help reduce depressive thoughts. Regular exercise has also shown to help reduce stress and anxiety, boost self esteem and improve sleep, which can help you feel overall better.
The Ideal Exercise: The Best Workout for Battling Depression
While any form of exercise has shown to benefit those with depression, research has shown that aerobic exercise is most effective. Activities like brisk walking, jogging, dancing, cycling on a bike or elliptical machine and swimming, are ideal.
WebMD recommends exercising for at least 20 to 30 minutes and at least three times a week in order to ease depression symptoms. Four to five workouts per week, the health site notes, has proven to bring about even greater results. If you haven't been exercising, start with brisk walking for 20 minutes. As you build endurance, you will be able to increase both your workout intensity and duration.
It's best to schedule your workouts into your calendar. Most find that working out first thing in the morning is best because there's less of a chance of things coming up and preventing you from getting it done. Plus, a morning workout will have you'll feeling better throughout the rest of the day.