Breaking the Cycle: How Exercise Can Help Treat Depression
Multiple meta-analyses on existing research conclude that reintegrating physical exercise into your day-to-day can help reduce the severity of depressive symptoms and result in a significant antidepressant effect, especially in people with major depressive disorder (MDD), the most common mood disorder diagnosed globally.
It’s been said time and time again – getting moving can help you fight the blues. Exercise is a proven tool in the management of mental health symptoms, including depression and anxiety. Yet it’s one thing to hear that exercise can help, and it’s another to feel those effects and put them to practice.
Exercise leads to a release of dopamine, a powerful neurotransmitter associated with motivation and mood regulation. But it also helps aid in the release of other important brain chemicals, including proteins that preserve neurons and lead to improvements in cognitive and mental well-being.
With spring just around the corner, let’s take the time to understand why – and how you can reintegrate exercise into your treatment.
How Much Does Exercise Really Help?
To understand the role that exercise plays in the management of depression – and other mental health conditions – it’s important to take a look at the different potential mechanisms of action that current exercise psychology research is exploring.
For one, there are neurological benefits to exercise, especially moderate-intensity aerobic exercise (think long walks, hikes, yoga, running, swimming, or other activities that get your blood pumping). We know that in the short term, working out can elicit a firework of beneficial neurotransmitters, chiefly endorphins.
These compounds are often summarized as “feel-good chemicals”, because they are directly associated with states of relaxation and joy. They’re also natural pain relievers. Exercise also correlates with the release of a certain protein – brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) – that can help reduce neuroinflammation, stave off cognitive decline, and boost the neurological benefits of exercising.
There are also certain physical benefits to exercise. In addition to the effects on the surface, such as improved performance and a more athletic look, long-term exercise is generally associated with improved heart health, chronic pain reduction, and a lowered risk of injury. But we shouldn’t underestimate the benefits of feeling more comfortable in our own skin or being more confident about the physical feeling of moving in our own body, whether it’s being able to walk without nagging pains or finally jumping and dancing again.
Another important benefit with large implications for mental health is the effect of exercise on sleep. We know that getting more steps in and moving around can help you enjoy longer, and more qualitative rest.
There are social benefits to exercise, too. Especially in a post-COVID era, where getting out and meeting people can be tough, exercise provides ample opportunities to meet new people through a joint activity, group exercises, a mutual physical hobby, or even friendly competition.
Exercise is not a panacea, nor does it have a mechanism of action that directly impacts symptoms of anxiety or depression – but its myriad benefits each play a role in the biopsychosocial elements of mental health, often resulting in improvements for existing treatment plans.
The Type of Exercise Matters
A lot of people don’t feel particularly happy after working out, nor do they feel less pain. That doesn’t necessarily mean exercise just “isn’t for you”. The reputation of the runner’s high has somewhat shifted the public’s perception on the benefits of running, especially as a form of exercise – but it’s far from the only way to get moving, and it might not necessarily be your best entry point.
For one, the research on the runner’s high is inconclusive and suggests that it’s rarer than most people might be led to believe. Most stories are anecdotal, but the ones that do bring it up tend to clarify that it occurs mostly after particularly intense or lengthy bouts of endurance training, which isn’t something a beginner or someone getting back into fitness should immediately aspire to.
But the general benefits of fitness, including feeling better after a workout, aren’t exclusive to 10+ mile hikes and ultra-marathons. But in your specific case, it may take a little time to figure out what kind of exercise makes you happy. Generally speaking, you want to:
- Pick an activity that either used to interest you, may be new to you, or is adjacent to old interests.
- Start easy. Don’t dip into your last reserves or push yourself to the limit.
- Beware that intense exercise can trigger the sympathetic nervous system, and even cause anxiety at first. It’s always a good idea to ease into more intense workouts one session at a time, one step of progression at a time.
- Consider starting with a friend, or someone knowledgeable in that type of exercise. Having someone around doesn’t just help keep you accountable but can provide crucial beginner knowledge.
- Talk to your mental health professional about incorporating exercise as a formal part of the treatment process. Getting into it at your own pace and picking something you enjoy doing are very important aspects of successfully turning exercise into a habit, but a formal structure can help monitor your symptoms and make adjustments accordingly.
- Last but not least, do not be alarmed if you feel overwhelmed, emotional, or even experience a dip in mood shortly after exercise. If the feeling doesn’t last very long, and you’re still in the first few weeks of getting back into the swing of things, then it may be entirely normal.
It’s All About Getting Started
If you told someone who was feeling down that they’d feel a lot better if they decided to go for a run, you might quickly realize that such an observation isn’t very helpful at the moment. And it’s true, exercise as an acute treatment for a depressive episode or an anxiety attack isn’t for everyone.
Unless it is an existing physical outlet for you, and part of your coping mechanisms, it’s important to acknowledge that incorporating exercise even in the context of mental wellness can be challenging. Physical activity should not replace ongoing treatments such as antidepressants or talk therapy – but it can play an important therapeutic role if incorporated consistently, over time.
The key is to get started on a good day, and to be flexible. Don’t start with a rigid five-day program. Start with a day, or two, or maybe even three. Start with easy workouts, that don’t leave you feeling wrecked, but refreshed. Use rituals to get you into the mood, such as putting on your favorite playlist, or wearing your new outfit for training. Don’t be discouraged if you miss a day or two. And don’t try to do it all alone. Having someone at your side, whether it’s a friend, a counselor, a coach, or a mental health professional, can go a long way.