About 25% of adults in the United States will meet the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) criteria for at least one clinically depressive episode in their lives. That means it’s almost certain someone you know has or will be affected by depression.
There is no doubt pharmaceuticals can, in many cases, be a valuable tool for treating mental health issues. But not only can medication be expensive, it doesn’t always work for everyone, and it may come with unwanted side effects. Ideally, treatment for mild to moderate depression involves stepping up to that level of care only after trying less invasive alternatives.
One thoroughly researched and potentially successful alternative or complement to traditional treatment of depression is exercise. Adding a regular exercise routine has been shown to potentially decrease a person’s depressive symptoms significantly. Even moderate levels of exercise, like brisk walking for 30 minutes, can improve mood. Conversely, a sedentary lifestyle is a risk factor for depression.
The Research on Exercise and Depression
More than 50 studies have been documented in reputable journals supporting the effectiveness of exercise for depression.
One group of researchers randomly assigned 156 moderately depressed adults to a medication group, an exercise group, or a medication and exercise group. Exercise group participants walked or jogged on a treadmill for 30 minutes three times per week for 16 weeks. Those in the medication group had a psychiatrist who evaluated medication efficacy, assessed side effects, and adjusted dosages as needed every four weeks for 16 weeks. Those in the combination group received medication and exercised. Results showed medication worked more quickly to reduce symptoms of depression, but there were no significant differences between treatment groups at 16 weeks. At the 10-month follow-up of the exercise group, members had significantly lower rates of depression than those in the medication group.
Some studies note the benefits of moderate exercise on mood can in some cases be felt within 5 minutes of raising one’s heart rate, and in almost every study that compared prolonged success in various forms of treatment, exercise was equal to or more effective than the other groups.
Since its efficacy has become clear, researchers are now looking more closely at which types of exercise are most beneficial and what causes the benefits. They are finding no significant difference between aerobic exercise and strength training when it comes to mood enhancement. They are, however, finding correlations between poor physical fitness and depression.
Some of the reasons exercise may be helpful for mood improvement:
- Raises levels of “feel-good” chemicals in the brain (neurotransmitters, endorphins) that can trigger feelings of euphoria
- Improves immune system function, which enhances health and quality of life
- Raises core body temperature, which can have a calming effect
- Provides an opportunity to take a break and do something good for yourself
- Releases brain chemicals that improve energy level and concentration
- Improves self-esteem, feelings of accomplishment, and willpower
- Can help with insomnia
I Know I Should, but I Don’t Want To!
The research is convincing, but as a therapist who works with individuals dealing with depression, and having experienced my own severe depression, I am well aware of the lack of motivation that can accompany clinical depression.
Do it begrudgingly. Complain about it. Growl. Whatever gets you moving. Just exercise.
Many people seem to think they have to be “in the mood” to exercise in order to do it. I would argue you likely will not be “in the mood” or “have the energy” to exercise if you’re depressed, since low motivation and decreased energy are two of the most commonly reported symptoms of depression. The key is to do it anyway. Do it begrudgingly. Complain about it. Growl. Whatever gets you moving. Just exercise.
If you can get through the discomfort of getting up and exercising when you don’t feel like it, you may find that the process of exercise itself makes you feel at least somewhat better and in turn boosts your motivation for next time. It also has the potential to challenge the thought “I can’t” and turn it into something more empowering: “I didn’t want to, but I did it anyway, and now I feel a little bit better.”
If you’re struggling with depression and want to learn more about how exercise might benefit you, contact a licensed therapist.
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