Depression and Regular Exercise

While we all feel low, sad or moody from time to time, some people experience these feelings intensely, for long periods of time, seemingly with no clear reason. Depression is more than just a low mood, it is a serious condition that has an impact on both physical and mental health. One in eight men and one in six women will experience depression in their lives.

While we do not know the exact cause of depression, we can associate several things with its development. Depression does not result from a single cause, but from a combination of biological factors, early childhood experiences, personality factors, recent stressful life events, and other personal factors.

Regular exercise leads to improved wellbeing, so doing regular physical activity is a good way to help prevent or manage mild depression. There are many views on how exercise helps people with depression, although the precise reasons are not clear. It is also not yet known which kind of exercise, or how much, is best or whether the benefits are lost if exercise is stopped.

Broadly, keeping active can:

  • lift mood through improved fitness
  • improve sleeping patterns
  • increase energy levels
  • block negative thoughts
  • distract people from daily worries
  • help people feel less alone if they exercise with others.

Exercise may also change levels of chemicals in the brain, such as serotonin, endorphins and stress hormones. Regular exercise may also be effective in the prevention and treatment of anxiety conditions, but perhaps to a lesser degree than depression.

Exercise can be a moderately helpful treatment for mild-to-moderate depression in adults. They should, therefore, consider exercise as an important lifestyle change that is used besides other treatments for depression.

The benefits that can be attained from exercise depend on the amount of exercise that is undertaken. Most studies showing that exercise was helpful used aerobic exercise, such as running or walking, for at least 30 minutes, three times a week, for at least eight weeks. People with significant heart or respiratory illnesses should seek medical advice before starting on an exercise program.

People with depression may find it difficult to get motivated or get started or continue to exercise on a long-term basis. Here are tips to get you started:

  • Start simple – increase your activity levels gradually to improve your self-confidence and build motivation for more energetic activities.
  • Do what is enjoyable – people with anxiety or depression often lose interest and pleasure in doing things they once enjoyed.
  • Include other people – people with anxiety or depression often withdraw from others, but continuing to socialize is an important part of recovery. Staying connected with friends and family can help increase wellbeing and confidence.
  • Make a plan – planning a routine can help people become more active. Make sure it includes some form of exercise each day. Try to stick to the plan as closely as possible, but be flexible.

If you have not exercised for a while, see your doctor first.