Exercise doesn’t have to just be about muscular strength and aerobic capacity — studies show exercise can help combat mild and severe depression.
Sure, exercise and working out can improve your physical health and your physique, help you drop weight, improve your sex life, and even add years to your life (has been shown to add 2 minutes to your life for every 1 minute spent exercising). But that’s not what motivates most people to stay active.
Most individuals, whether they realize it in the moment or not, exercise because of the enormous sense of well-being. Carrying more energy throughout the day, sleeping better at night, have sharper memories, and feeling more relaxed and positive about themselves and their lives. And it’s also a powerful medicine for many common mental health challenges!
The link between depression and exercise isn’t entirely clear, but working out and other forms of physical activity can definitely ease symptoms of depression and make you feel better.
It is probably worth noting that exercise is not the answer to those suffering from clinical depression. If someone says they are depressed and you respond with “you just need to exercise” you won’t be helping the situation in any way.
How Does Exercise Help with Depression
Exercise is a powerful depression fighter for several reasons. Most importantly, it promotes all kinds of changes in the brain, including neural growth, reduced inflammation, and new activity patterns that promote feelings of calm and well-being. It also releases endorphins, natural cannabis-like brain chemicals in your brain that energize you and make you feel good. Finally and likely most importantly, exercise can also serve as a distraction, allowing you to find some quiet time to break out of the cycle of negative thoughts that feed depression.
Other benefits that come from exercising include gaining confidence from meeting exercise goals or challenges. Even small goals, can boost your self-confidence. Most exercise also includes getting more social interaction which may give you the chance to meet or socialize with others. Just exchanging a friendly smile or greeting as you walk around your neighborhood can help your mood. Exercise can also help you cope in a healthy way by doing something positive instead of turning to other vices or dwelling on how you feel.
How Much Exercise is Needed
To gain the benefits from exercise the Mayo Clinic recommends 30 minutes a day, three to five times a week but results can be seen in as few as 10-15 minutes of exercise. By completing a more intense or exhausting type of exercise the amount of time needed shrinks. So if you are short on time and looking for a quick mental boost, a fast 15 minute run could be a great starting point. As one example, a recent study done by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that running for 15 minutes a day or walking for an hour reduces the risk of major depression by 26%.
To gain the benefits you will need to make it a regular thing. Just going out for a run once a month can be a beneficial boost in the moment but keep the momentum going and try to get a minimum of three workouts in a week.
What Kind of Exercise Should You Do
Some research shows that physical activity such as regular walking can help improve mood. Physical activity and exercise are not the same thing, but both are beneficial to your health. However, whatever you pick should be something you truly enjoy. If you are not enjoying it, you are highly likely to stop doing it. Don’t be afraid to try new things, group exercise not working out? Might be time to try hiking. Take advantage of the environment around you and don’t be afraid to go into a local running store or bike shop and ask if they have any kind of weekly group events.
Without a doubt running, lifting weights, playing basketball and other activities that get your heart rate up can help. But so can physical activity such as gardening, washing your car, walking around the block or taking on less intense activities. Any activity that gets you off the couch and moving can help improve your mood.
You don’t have to do all your exercise or other physical activity at once. Broaden how you think of exercise and find ways to add small amounts of physical activity throughout your day. For example, take the stairs instead of the elevator. Park farther away at the grocery store to fit in a short walk. Or, if you live in close proximity to work, consider biking or walking to work.
Even if you’re not suffering from a mental health problem, regular exercise can still offer a boost to your mood, outlook, and mental well-being. Exercise can help in a variety of ways including:
Improved memory and thinking. The same endorphins that make you feel better also help you concentrate and feel mentally sharp for tasks at hand. Exercise also stimulates the growth of the hippocampus and helps prevent age-related decline.
Improved self-esteem. Regular activity is an investment in your mind, body, and soul. When it becomes habit, it can foster your sense of self-worth and make you feel strong and powerful. You’ll feel better about your appearance and, by meeting even small exercise goals, you’ll feel a sense of achievement.
Better and higher quality sleep. Even short bursts of exercise in the morning or afternoon can help regulate your sleep patterns. If you prefer to exercise at night, relaxing exercises such as yoga or gentle stretching can help promote sleep.
More energy throughout the day. Increasing your heart rate several times a week will give you more get-up-and-go. Start off with just a few minutes of exercise per day, and increase your workout as you feel more energized.
Stronger mental fortitude. When faced with mental or emotional challenges in life, exercise can help you build resilience and cope in a healthy way, instead of resorting to alcohol, drugs, or other negative behaviors that ultimately only make your symptoms worse. Regular exercise can also help boost your immune system and reduce the impact of stress.
As always, you should check with your doctor before starting a new exercise program to make sure it’s safe for you. Talk to your doctor to find out which activities, how much exercise and what intensity level is best for you. Your doctor will take into consideration any medications you take and your health conditions.
If you exercise regularly but depression still interferes with your daily living, see your doctor or mental health professional. Exercise and physical activity are great ways to ease symptoms of depression, but they aren’t a substitute or replacement for talk therapy or medications.
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