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How Does Exercise Help Depression

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Making Research More Equal

The effects of exercise on depression

The fact that more women report depression could help explain the relationship between depression, exercise, and sleep. People with more severe symptoms of depression may be less motivated to exercise and more likely to experience disturbed sleep. As the study showed, these individuals were more likely to be female.

Researchers must do much more work to strengthen these findings. Future studies will need to include people from numerous locations around the world to see whether the results are applicable globally. They will also need to recruit and evaluate people from different age ranges.

Gender differences also mean that research into depression may need to prioritize women, which some people have accused it of failing to do in the past.

How To Get Started With Exercise

Find an activity you can do regularly. You can take part in a team sport, attend classes at a leisure centre, or just be more active in your daily routine by walking or cycling instead of travelling by car or public transport.

If being outdoors appeals to you, Green Gym projects, run by The Conservation Volunteers , provide exercise for people who do not like the idea of the gym or indoor exercise classes. To find out more, visit the TCV website.

If you like walking, groups such as Ramblers Wellbeing Walks can support people who have health problems, including mental health conditions.

What You Can Do

It’s unclear how long you need to exercise, or how intensely, before nerve cell improvement begins alleviating depression symptoms. You should begin to feel better a few weeks after you begin exercising. But this is a long-term treatment, not a onetime fix. “Pick something you can sustain over time,” advises Dr. Miller. “The key is to make it something you like and something that you’ll want to keep doing.”

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Exercise And Ptsd And Trauma

Evidence suggests that by really focusing on your body and how it feels as you exercise, you can actually help your nervous system become unstuck and begin to move out of the immobilization stress response that characterizes PTSD or trauma. Instead of allowing your mind to wander, pay close attention to the physical sensations in your joints and muscles, even your insides as your body moves. Exercises that involve cross movement and that engage both arms and legssuch as walking , running, swimming, weight training, or dancingare some of your best choices.

Outdoor activities like hiking, sailing, mountain biking, rock climbing, whitewater rafting, and skiing have also been shown to reduce the symptoms of PTSD.

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How Does Exercise Reduce Depression Symptoms

How to Exercise to Help Treat Depression

Theres extensive research to show that exercise helps reduce symptoms of depression in people already experiencing them. Physical activity can also be a protective measure against future episodes of depression.

Researchers are still learning about the biological reasons why exercise has such a positive effect on so many people. It can offer similar benefits to traditional therapy and may even work better than some conventional treatments.

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Exercise Is Effective Against Symptoms Of Major Depression

Physical exercise has been shown to be an effective treatment for major depression in adults 14, 91 in several randomized controlled trials comparing it to a wide range of other treatments, including usual care, psychological interventions, and antidepressant medications 14, 92. Although there have been contrarian meta-analytic findings , closer inspection of methodological details reveals a pattern of debatable choices .

Exercise interventions consisting of three sessions per week for 1224 weeks typically result in a medium to large reduction in the severity of depression, measured by symptom rating scales . Moreover, exercise interventions have been found to result in 22% higher likelihood of remission from depression than treatment as usual , the latter in turn being associated with the remission of about a third of patients . Generally, exercise is well-tolerated and leads to about 18% of dropout rates . Based on the available data, the efficacy of exercise seems greater if it is aerobic, delivered in groups, and supervised by an instructor . Although there are relatively few head-to-head comparisons and duration of treatment may be different, the efficacy of exercise may be comparable in terms of magnitude to that of psychotherapies or antidepressant medications .

Exercise Can Reverse The Effects Of Depression On Your Brain

If left untreated depression can produce some frightening changes in the brain. For example, it can cause shrinkage in areas that help regulate mood, including the hippocampus, thalamus, frontal cortex, and prefrontal cortex. This happens because the brains stress chemical, a hormone called cortisol, is produced in abundance when you are depressed. Excessive quantities of cortisol will inhibit neural functioning and can cause underutilized areas to shrink.

Fortunately, changes like these are reversible, and that is where exercise can have a huge impact. Exercise stimulates the growth of new nerve cells and nerve cell connections, which will regenerate brain functioning and help you get back to where you were before you became depressed. Vigorous exercise also helps by stimulating the release of endorphins, the brain chemicals that make you feel euphoric and energetic when you are engaged in a fun or healthy activity.

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Exercise Is As Effective As Antidepressants In Some Cases

One in 10 adults in the United States struggles with depression, and antidepressant medications are a common way to treat the condition. However, pills aren’t the only solution. Research shows that exercise is also an effective treatment. “For some people it works as well as antidepressants, although exercise alone isn’t enough for someone with severe depression,” says Dr. Michael Craig Miller, assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

Other Mental Health Benefits Of Exercise

Exercise, Depression, and Anxiety: The Evidence

Even if youre not suffering from a mental health problem, regular physical activity can still offer a welcome boost to your mood, outlook, and mental well-being.

Exercise can help provide:

Sharper 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 new brain cells and helps prevent age-related decline.

Higher 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. Youll feel better about your appearance and, by meeting even small exercise goals, youll feel a sense of achievement.

Better 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. 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.

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Effects And Mechanisms Of Exercise On Depression

Depression is one of the most prevalent mental disease affecting around 340 million people all over the world , and exert a significant financial and emotional burden to both families and society . Patients with depression presented low levels of mood, feelings of guilt, decreased appetite, poor sleep quality, helplessness, low self-worth, fatigue, psychomotor retardation, low interest in social interaction and sexual activity . Stressful events from work place and school or abnormal endocrine function such as hypercortisolism are the common risk factors contributing to depression , and about 50% of the depression is determined by gene .

Table 1. Summary of the effect of exercise on anxiety and depression in animal studies.

Table 2. Summary of the effect of exercise on anxiety and depression in human studies.

How To Get Started Exercising

As beneficial as physical fitness is, adding exercise into your weekly routine may take may some time. Here are a few tips to help you get started:

  • Start small. You dont have to hit the gym right away. Start walking your pet, taking stairs instead of the elevator, or do some light gardening or cleaning. These are simple ways to begin incorporating exercise into your routine.
  • Work out with a friend. You can meet up with a friend for a walk, take a yoga class together, or even participate in a friendly competition. Whatever you choose, working out with a friend can hold you accountable and keep you motivated.
  • Remain consistent. The World Health Organization recommends 150 minutes of moderate physical activity a week. You can break that up however you like, but make sure youre consistent. In most cases, consistency is more important than intensity when you exercise.

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Exercise May Help To Fend Off Depression

Jogging for 15 minutes a day, or walking or gardening for somewhat longer, could help protect people against developing depression.

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By Gretchen Reynolds

Jogging for 15 minutes a day, or walking or gardening for somewhat longer, could help protect people against developing depression, according to an innovative new study published last month in JAMA Psychiatry. The study involved hundreds of thousands of people and used a type of statistical analysis to establish, for the first time, that physical activity may help prevent depression, a finding with considerable relevance for any of us interested in maintaining or bolstering our mental health.

Plenty of past studies have examined the connections between exercise, moods and psychological well-being, of course. And most have concluded that physically active people tend to be happier and less prone to anxiety and severe depression than people who seldom move much.

To show causation, scientists rely on randomized experiments, during which they assign people to, for instance, exercise or not and then monitor the outcomes. Researchers have been using randomized trials to look at whether exercise can treat depression after people already have developed the condition, and the results have been encouraging.

Effects And Mechanisms Of Exercise On Anxiety

Does Exercise Help Depression? Improve Your Mood and Brain Health

According to previous studies, nearly one-half of people diagnosed with depression will also experience comorbid anxiety . Anxiety is one of the most common mental health diseases contributing to poor concentration, emotional changes, impaired sleep quality and difficulties in performing daily tasks . Due to the typical symptoms, including sweating, shaking, chills, rapid heartbeat, poor mental state and hyperventilation, anxiety was defined as a specific psychiatric disorder . As reported by previous studies, 25% of the population reported at least one episode of anxiety disorder during their lifetime, and 6% of men and 13% of women suffer from anxiety disorders in the United States . Compared with drug therapy, exercise is considered as an alternative therapy for anxiety disorders, which has lower cost and fewer side effects.

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Summary And Bottom Line

In summary, exercise appears to be an effective treatment for depression, improving depressive symptoms to a comparable extent as pharmacotherapy and psychotherapy. Observational studies suggest that active people are less likely to be depressed, and interventional studies suggest that exercise is beneficial in reducing depression. It appears that even modest levels of exercise are associated with improvements in depression, and while most studies to date have focused on aerobic exercise, several studies also have found evidence that resistance training also may be effective. While the optimal âdoseâ of exercise is unknown, clearly any exercise is better than no exercise. Getting patients to initiate exercise and sustain it â is critical.

What Parts Of The Brain Are Affected By Exercise

Although exercise can be a critical tool to counter depression, some people get more benefits than others.

Researchers are trying to figure out why by looking at how exercise might affect the body and the brain.

There are known biological factors that increase the likelihood of depression. But exercise can parry these factors, facilitating changes in the body and brain that help alleviate some depression symptoms.

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What Should I Do If Exercise Is Painful

Never ignore pain. You may cause stress and damage to your joints and muscles if you continue exercising through pain.

If you still feel pain a couple hours after exercising, you have probably overexerted yourself and need to decrease your activity level. If your pain persists or is severe, or if you suspect you have injured yourself, contact your doctor.

If you are unable to regularly participate in exercise or athletics, you can also try other tools to help boost your mood. Studies of meditation and massage therapy have demonstrated that these techniques can stimulate endorphin secretion, increase relaxation, and aid in boosting mood.

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Make Exercise Work For You


Physical activity involves so much more than going to the gym or hopping on a treadmill. Finding what you like to do helps with adherence and better mental health outcomes.

To maximize success, try different times of the day. Download an app or take a class at the gym. Try exercising alone or with friends. Plug into music or go for a run and tune into nature. Although it may take some trial and error, keep experimenting until you find what works best for you.

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Can Exercise Really Help Relieve Depression

The idea that regular exercise can improve symptoms of depression and anxiety is not new. Hippocrates was the first Western physician to prescribe this treatment 2,500 years ago, and doctors have been recommending it to patients ever since. If you suffer from chronic depression, exercise wont be the only treatment youll need, but it will help along with your recovery and maintenance plan. Whereas medication and counseling can take weeks to work, research shows that you can start feeling the positive effects of exercise right away.

In addition to these physiological benefits, exercise can promote psychological and emotional changes:

  • Distraction.One of the most debilitating effects of depression is that it causes you to focus on whats wrong and dwell on the negative. With the right approach, exercise can help you find some pleasure amid apparent troubles.
  • Confidence. The feelings that come with depression often cause people to withdraw from normal activities and pursuits, leading to a loss of self-confidence. By setting and meeting a goal, like a small amount of exercise each day, you can begin to rebuild confidence and self-efficacy.
  • Self-respect.Taking the time to do something positive every day can help you reconnect with the part of yourself that wants to be healthy and productive. Exercise can be a positive coping strategy.

How Often Do You Need To Exercise

To stay healthy, adults should do 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity every week.

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If you have not exercised for a while, start gradually and aim to build up towards achieving 150 minutes a week.

Any exercise is better than none and even a brisk 10-minute walk can clear your mind and help you relax. Find out more about walking for health.

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Exercise Helps Reduce Stress & Anxiety

  • Life can be stressful. Stress, especially in large amounts, can lead to depression, particularly if it is managed in unhealthy ways. Physical fitness is a healthy distraction. No, exercise cant and wont make stress go away, but it can give you time to step away from the cycle of negative thoughts that feed depression. As you distract your mind and break up the mental obsession with negative thoughts, your increased activity level decreases the number of stress hormones in your body and releases endorphins, which can boost your mood and energize you. By the time you stop working out, youll have fewer stress hormones to deal with and you may have a better perspective on your situation, as well.

The Therapeutic Effect Of Exercise On Depression

Pin on exercise and mental health

The beneficial effects of exercise on depression and depressive symptoms have been demonstrated in the last decade, with a large body of research supporting the effect of physical exercise on reducing depressive symptoms in patients . For instance, a study aimed at patients with depression revealed regardless of aerobic exercise or stretching exercise, there was a significant short-term time effect for symptom severity , mental toughness , physical self-description endurance score , cognitive flexibility , and body mass index . A meta-analytical review that included 1,452 clinically depressed adults revealed that large effects in favor of exercise were found, irrespective of the exercise mode and study quality, compared to the control condition.

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Aerobic Exercise Appears To Help Alleviate Depressive Symptoms Experts Say

Exercise isnt a depression cure-all theres no such thing. But plenty of research has shown that exercise can reduce or even prevent symptoms of depression.

Among people with depression and similar health conditions, exercise appears to have substantial mental health benefits. For instance, a review published online in August 2019 in the Journal of Neurology found that exercise can significantly improve depressive symptoms and quality of life when used as an add-on therapy to usual treatment and the more exercise, the better, researchers noted.

Earlier, a large study published in January 2018 in TheAmerican Journal of Psychiatry concluded that engaging in physical activity of any intensity for at least one hour each week could prevent 12 percent of future cases of depression.

What makes a fitness routine an excellent addition to your depression treatment plan? There are likely multiple factors. Biologically, exercise can increase certain chemicals in the brain that can help form new brain cells and new connections between brain cells.

In addition to the direct effects exercise has on the brain, other physical changes that occur with exercise, such as cardiovascular fitness and improved metabolic health, promote brain health indirectly.

If you need help becoming more active or if you simply want to try new activities, here are seven great exercises that can help ease depression symptoms.

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