Depression is more than just a “down” mood. It’s a serious condition that afflicts millions of people and their families. Some depressed individuals suffer in silence while their condition slowly worsens. But it’s not something to ignore. Some people improve with lifestyle changes including changes in diet, sleep, and stress management. However, lifestyle changes aren’t always enough to cure depression. Still, exercise can be beneficial as part of a larger treatment plan that includes counseling and medications.
On a more optimistic note, research shows that physically active men and women are less likely to experience depression. You might wonder how exercise helps with the symptoms of depression. Let’s look at some ways exercise elevates mood.
Exercise Boosts Endorphins
One reason exercise elevates mood is that it boosts the release of endorphins, natural chemicals that your body produces. Endorphins are hormones that regulate mood and reduce pain. When you have more endorphins in your bloodstream, you’re less susceptible to pain and feel happier and more positive. The boost that endorphins offer helps reign the negative thoughts that accompany depression.
Although any form of exercise can stimulate endorphins, especially if it’s intense enough, aerobic workouts may be best for boosting endorphins. You may have heard of the “runner’s high,” the positive feelings runners experience when they run for a while. Researchers believe endorphins may account for this benefit. Any exercise that boosts heart rate for a sustained period, like brisk walking or running, stimulates mood-boosting endorphins.
Exercise Improves Sleep Quality
People who are depressed struggle to get a good night’s sleep. They lie awake worrying and even when they fall asleep, their sleep is restless. Can exercise help? Research shows exercise improves sleep quality. A meta-analysis of 22 studies found that exercise enhances sleep quality, allowing for a better night’s sleep. Exercise at any time of day is beneficial for improving sleep but morning workouts have an edge for helping you sleep better. It’s best to avoid working out within one to two hours of bedtime since exercise causes a rise in core body temperature that can interfere with sleep.
Physical Activity Improves Self-Esteem
Depressed individuals can have self-esteem issues that stand in their way of getting treatment. Their lack of motivation makes it hard to make decisions and seek help. The good news? Exercise is a self-esteem booster. Certain forms of exercise, like weight training, build strength, and feeling strong builds confidence and counters feelings of helplessness. Plus, endorphin release and changes in brain chemicals such as serotonin in response to exercise are beneficial for self-esteem.
One study found that people who exercised regularly had reduced activity in the amygdala, an area of the brain that processes fear and negative emotions. Often, depression is linked with negative and fearful thinking and activity in this area of the brain.
Exercise Boosts Energy Level and Reduces Fatigue
Although exercise uses energy, it also builds greater stamina. By boosting mitochondria, the energy producers inside muscle cells, cells can produce energy more efficiently. Plus, exercise enhances blood flow and increases oxygen delivery to cells, which boosts energy. That’s why, paradoxically, people who exercise feel more energetic. People who are depressed, by definition, have a low energy level. So, getting started with an exercise routine is challenging, but once the individual beings, benefits can start with the first workout. Regular physical activity further increases the benefits.
Is there science to support this? A study published in Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics found that exercise boosted energy by 20% and reduced fatigue, too. It didn’t take intense exercise to get these benefits either. Even consistent low-intensity exercise was an energy enhancer.
Exercise Reduces Inflammation
Many observational studies show moderate exercise reduces inflammation, as measured by a drop in inflammatory markers in the bloodstream. Why is this important? Research links depression with low-grade chronic inflammation. In fact, medications that reduce inflammation also improve the symptoms of depression in some people. This area needs more research but there are other advantages to reducing low-grade inflammation through exercise.
The Bottom Line
Exercise is one of the best things you can do for your body but it’s also beneficial for your mental health. Antidepressants that doctors prescribe to treat depression are helpful in some cases, but exercise may offer additional benefits for treating depression. Exercise is beneficial for mood and brain health. It’s hard to argue with those benefits. Plus, there are many ways to get a workout. It’s best to start slowly since depression reduces the motivation to do anything. A 10-minute walk is an effective way to start and then gradually increase the time to 20 or 30 minutes per session.
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