Are you wondering, 'does exercise help depression?' Are you often or always tired, lack interest in your normal activities, and feel helpless to change? Are you looking for a way to treat depression besides popping more pills (never mind the side effects)?
Well, you’re in luck! Studies reveal that exercise for depression can be a game-changer. Plus, exercise is easy, inexpensive and the side-effects are all positive.
A new study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry found that even only one hour of exercise a week can prevent the onset of depression. And physical activity of any intensity can be effective.
This means you don’t have to be a CrossFit® junkie or a boot camp enthusiast to benefit from exercise. Even walking or gardening – activities you may already enjoy – count!
Why Exercise for Depression Relief?
At least 20% of Americans will experience major depression at least once in their lifetime. The majority of those who do will experience multiple recurrences. Even more concerning is the prediction that depression is on the rise.
Some of the common symptoms of depression include:
- Loss of interest in normal activities
- Feelings of sadness, emptiness or hopelessness
- Sleep disturbances
- Fatigue that makes usual tasks feel impossible
- Anxiety, trouble sleeping or restlessness
- Difficulty thinking and concentrating
Since we don’t know exactly what causes depression, it’s hard to know just why exercise can be so helpful. But across the board, that’s exactly what researchers are finding.
A comprehensive review of studies examining the impact of physical activity on rates of depression is promising. The vast majority showed a negative correlation between exercise and rates of future depression. This means that not only can exercise treat depression, it can also help to prevent it!
The same reviews found that even low levels of exercise – like walking – have the same protective benefits against the onset of depression.
Later, we’ll discuss the exact science of how and why exercise for depression affects our brains. But first, let’s jump right into six different, fun, yet simple exercises to boost your mood, and hopefully bring happiness!
6 Types of Exercise for Depression
You may be wondering what types of exercise can help you best experience these benefits. Here are six ideas to get you going.
Walking or Running
Exercise can be as easy as taking your dog for a walk or going for a jog in your neighborhood or local park.
One study found that walking for 20-40 minutes three times per week for six weeks is more effective than pharmacological treatment or social support groups in alleviating symptoms of depression. These benefits even extended beyond the duration of the study.
Walking with friends or joining a running or hiking group is great, too! You will get the benefits of exercise and social activity. So, lace up those sneakers and get out there.
Maybe you’re someone who prefers to hit the gym or pump some iron to get your blood moving.
Research shows resistance training – like weight-lifting – can be as effective as aerobic exercise for depression. In a study comparing weight training to running, women in both groups experienced similar benefits. And you don’t have to be a bodybuilder to reap these benefits! At age 84, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg weight trains twice a week to stay in shape.
There’s tons of research and knowledge that shows how the practice of yoga has a number of therapeutic benefits. Increased endurance and strength, and improved flexibility and balance are just a few.
This ancient practice (3,000 years old!) aims to condition the body while directing the mind to an awareness of breath. Studies show that it has a positive effect on symptoms of depression, too.
Yoga decreases sympathetic nervous system activity (the “fight or flight” response). That’s why you feel so relaxed after class. Blood pressure and cortisol levels drop, too, as parasympathetic activity takes over.
Yoga also boosts serotonin levels (remember how SSRI’s work?) and decreases monoamine oxidase – an enzyme that breaks down these neurotransmitters in the brain. That’s something to “Om” about.
Tai Qi and Qigong
Tai Qi (also known as Tai Chi) and Qi Gong are mind-body practices developed in ancient China.
Both work to strengthen the body and relax the mind. Developed as a martial art, Tai Qi is actually a slower form of movements that can be used for self defense. It is a popular form of exercise among older adults due to its low-impact, aerobic benefits.
Qi Gong (“energy practice”) is a similar form of meditative movement. A branch of Chinese medicine, it targets specific health conditions for healing purposes.
Tai Qi and Qigong are easy on the joints and accessible to both younger and older practitioners. Like yoga, research indicates that Tai Qi and Qi Gong can decrease sympathetic output. They also increase relaxation. We know that these types of therapeutic benefits decrease symptoms of depression. In addition, Tai Qi and Qigong increase endorphins (natural pain-relieving chemicals) and also improve immune function.
Gardening is a popular activity that actually has many health benefits.
Getting outdoors, breathing fresh air and absorbing a regular dose of natural vitamin D are a few. If you are already a gardener, you may know that it can boost your mood, too!
In a meta-analysis of research on gardening and depression, researchers found that gardening improved a number of health outcomes. Besides alleviating symptoms of depression and anxiety, gardening also reduced body mass index (BMI). It further increased quality of life, satisfaction and a sense of community among participants.
Not to mention, eating what you grow gives you all the health benefits of fresh, organic veggies.
Think you can’t dance? Think again.
Dance Movement Therapy (DMT) may be an effective complementary treatment for depression. One study compared dance therapy to treatment with psychotherapy and pharmaceuticals. In the study, the group that also participated in Dance Movement Therapy fared better both in the short and long term. In a study comparing tango dancing and mindfulness meditation for treatment of depression, outcomes for both groups improved. Only the tango dancing group also showed reduced stress levels as well.
Many dance studios offer beginner lessons followed by an open session. There, dancers of all levels get to practice and socialize. So get out there and dance like no one’s watching!
Neuroscience and Depression
The field of neuroscience is an exciting frontier in understanding mood disorders.
Neuroscientists study brain and nervous system function. For a long time, we’ve thought that an imbalance in brain chemistry causes depression. This is why SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors) are so commonly used to treat symptoms of depression. By boosting serotonin levels (a brain chemical responsible for regulating mood), SSRIs can reduce symptoms of depression for some people.
Still, not everyone responds to treatment with medication. This may be because the causes of depression are not the same for everyone. Genetics, life events, medications and overall health also come into play. Scientists are discovering that the growth of neurons, and the formation of new neuronal connections (neuroplasticity), are even more important in understanding depression than brain chemical imbalance.
These factors may explain why exercise for depression is so important.
Neuronal growth and neuroplasticity are just a few ways physical movement may reduce symptoms of depression. Regular physical activity also reduces inflammation levels in the body and boosts brain function. Lower inflammation levels correlate with lower levels of depression.
But How Much Exercise Is Necessary?
According to Dr. Trivedi, a researcher involved in studying depression, three to five sessions per week are recommended for people suffering from major depression.
Each session of physical activity should last 45-60 minutes and boost heart rate to 50-85% of maximum. At least four weeks of regular exercise should be undertaken, but 10-12 weeks is best.
By boosting brain function, exercise helps the brain to heal itself.
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The Many Benefits of Exercise for Depression
There are so many ways regular physical activity may help alleviate and prevent symptoms of depression.
Boosting brain and immune system health are two important ways. Reducing inflammation levels in the body is another. And any level of activity counts!
Walking, running, gardening and dancing are easy, low-impact activities you may already enjoy. Yoga, Tai Qi, Qi Gong and weight training can also be just as beneficial.
Three to five times a week is best, but any amount of exercise is better than none. So don’t wait until you’re in “perfect” shape to start. Any fitness or activity level can provide benefits when done regularly.
Ready; set; go!
BONUS RECIPE: GREEN SMOOTHIE
- 250ml milk of your choice (we used unsweetened almond milk)
- 1 tbsp ground flaxseed
- 1 tsp maca powder (optional)
- pinch ground cinnamon
- 1 medjool date , stoned
- 1 small ripe banana
- handful cavolo nero or spinach
- 1 tbsp almond butter
-Pour the milk into a high-speed blender.
-Then add the ground flaxseed, maca powder (if using) and the cinnamon.
-Add the remaining ingredients then blitz until smooth.
-Pour into glasses and serve.
Serving: kcal 329 | fat 15g| saturates 1g | carbs 36g | sugars 33g | fibre 8g | protein 8g | salt 0.4g