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The Benefits of Exercise as a Natural Depression Treatment

When you’re depressed, summoning the energy to tackle even simple tasks can be challenging, so it’s no surprise that the thought of exercising would feel nearly impossible. However if you can find small, approachable ways to do it, moving your body can have a big impact on how you feel. In addition to helping prevent a number of physical health problems, like heart disease and diabetes, exercise has shown to be an effective way to reduce symptoms of depression.

By better understanding how exercise can help with symptoms of depression and how to get started, you can make a plan that works for you and get moving.

How are exercise and depression related?

Perhaps one of the most challenging symptoms of depression is a lack of motivation. Sometimes it’s difficult to get out of bed in the morning, let alone get out and exercise. This can contribute to a self-sustaining loop of negative feelings: staying home means withdrawing from activities social interactions, which in turn can make you feel even worse about yourself and make you withdraw even more.

It can be a really tough cycle to break, but doing so can have real results. Exercise stimulates a biological and psychological cascade of events that support physical and mental health, so finding ways to move your body is critical.

How can exercise reduce symptoms of depression?

Here are 7 ways that scientists believe exercise may help reduce feelings of depression:

 

  1. Stimulating nerve growth and connection
    Studies have shown that exercising can stimulate brain growth and strengthen new neural connections, specifically in the hippocampus, a key part of the brain that is impaired in people suffering from depression
  2. Increasing availability of neurotransmitters
    Exercise may increase the availability of neurotransmitters, the brain’s chemical messengers that are impaired with depression
  3. Releasing endorphins
    Endorphins and endocannabinoids are brain chemicals that are released with exercise and proven to make you feel good, including a positive mood and enhanced sense of wellbeing
  4. Supporting good sleep
    When you exercise during the day, it’s easier for your body to maintain a healthy sleep cycle, and we know that quality sleep is one of the more important factors in treating depression
  5. Creating social interactions
    Being active is a natural way to get out in the world and connect with people, and feeling connected to others is linked with lower rates of depression
  6. Building confidence
    Setting and achieving goals, even small ones, can help build self-efficacy, or a sense of confidence and capability, that can help replace feelings of inadequacy and hopelessness
  7. Experiencing flow
    Exercising encourages a state of “flow.” Flow is that feeling when you are fully focused and present in the current moment, when worries about the past and future melt away. Being in a state of flow can help displace negative feelings associated with depression

So what should I do for exercise?

Generally speaking, any way you choose to move your body can help. Really any kind of physical activity that you enjoy, even things like gardening or cleaning the house, can be good for your mood. Finding more active ways to exercise, including things like brisk walking, cycling, and yoga, can have even more health benefits. 

Here are a few tips that might help you get moving:

 

  1. Choose something you actually enjoy doing
    If you like doing something (or at least used to), it’s much more likely that you’ll be able to follow through with it and make it into a habit. Plus, getting exercise is all about getting some enjoyment – it shouldn’t feel like a chore. Keep in mind that exercise for you doesn’t have to mean finding one activity and sticking solely to it. For those of us who like to switch it up, finding multiple ways to be active is a great alternative and can provide refreshing variety.
  2. Set reasonable goals
    Any progress, no matter how small, is progress when it comes to exercise — you don’t want this to feel overwhelming. Setting goals can be a great way to stay motivated, but make sure you start with small, achievable goals and work up from there. Many people start with as little as 10 minutes of walking per day and increase that amount each week. You should aim to work up to at least 30 minutes of exercise 3-5 days per week to reap optimal health benefits.
  3. Be gentle with yourself
    First of all, it’s no small feat to get into an exercise routine and stick with it. There may be days where you just can’t get yourself out the door and moving. Try not to beat yourself up about it, and remind yourself that everybody’s path looks a little different — what matters here is the long term trajectory, not necessarily any one day or week. If you’re having a tough period, know that every day is an opportunity to start again.
  4. Stick with it
    Developing an exercise routine is a long term treatment, not a one time fix. What matters is consistency and making exercise a habit rather than a chore. Work it into your daily routine, find a buddy, use an app, and ask for help when you need it.

Takeaways

Exercise shouldn’t feel optional – it’s vital. “Our bodies are made to move. While depression can sap your energy and motivation, it’s important to prioritize some form of exercise several times a week,” says Mari Kurahashi, MD, a Brightside Clinical Advisor. 

Exercise is just one important part of self care for treating depression. It’s also important to work on improving other parts of your lifestyle, like diet and sleep, as well as finding ways to effectively manage stress and stay connected to people. Many people need more than lifestyle changes to get on top of their depression, and can benefit from pairing self care strategies with therapy and/or medication.

You should check with your doctor before starting a new exercise program to make sure it’s safe for you. 

Resources

If you’d like to use an app to help you get moving, here are a couple you may enjoy.

  • Argus – an app that makes it easy to track your activities
  • Charity miles – log your activities for donations to charities
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