Exercise and Depression
By Leslie Thompson
Doctors, scientists, and personal trainers have long touted the benefits of exercise on a person’s physical health. Regular fitness activity prevents chronic health conditions, helps maintain a healthy weight, increases energy, and much more. But did you know that exercise also benefits your mental health by reducing depression and anxiety? If you are one of the millions of Americans who suffers from depression, take note: Hitting the gym has just become a little more enticing.
One in 20 Americans aged 12 and older currently suffers from depression, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Of them, 80% reported some level of functional impairment because of their ailment, and 27% reported their depression has made things like working, relationships, and household chores extremely difficult. Women are almost twice as likely as males to experience depressive episodes—in fact, one in four women will experience severe depression at some point in their lives.
The cause of depression varies from person to person and is generally the result of a combination of reasons. Some of the main factors that may lead to depression include past physical, sexual, or emotional abuse; certain medications; conflicts with family members or friends; death or loss of a loved one; a family history of depression; and major events such as moving, divorce, or retirement. It’s important to understand that not everyone who has experienced the above-mentioned events will develop depression, and that research is continually being conducted to find out why some people are more prone to depressive episodes than others.
There are several types of treatment options for depression depending on the symptoms present. Most physicians will generally prescribe cognitive behavioral therapy and an antidepressant medication to help one cope with their illness. However, it is becoming more common for physicians to encourage their patients to participate in physical activity in addition to the traditional treatment plans. For someone suffering from depression and/or anxiety, working out may be the last thing you want to do. Getting out of bed can feel like a chore and adding a trip to the gym may seem impossible, but the benefits make it worth it.
Scientists and physicians do not fully understand why exercise helps diminish depressive symptoms, but research suggests that regular, moderate physical activity raises the level of certain mood-enhancing neurotransmitters in the brain. The increased levels of serotonin are thought to be linked to mood regulation. Exercise also produces feel-good endorphins and reduces the levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Another benefit of exercise is the improvement it can have over one’s self-esteem and confidence. Working out brings with it a sense of accomplishment and can make you feel better about yourself. Exercise also provides a much-needed distraction. Instead of dwelling on how bad or sad you may feel, exercise shifts the focus toward something positive and more pleasant. Lastly, exercise is a way to socialize with others and avoid the isolation that quite often accompanies depression.
Depression severely weighs a person down, and overcoming the inertia that accompanies the illness is the first step. When starting a new workout regime, keep it simple. Set easy, attainable goals such as taking a walk around the neighborhood. Studies have shown that even short bouts of activity—as little as 15 minutes—reduce the signs and symptoms of depression. Make a plan to increase your daily activity, little by little. When working out, don’t be too hard on yourself and make sure to feel good about what you have accomplished. Try to do activities you once enjoyed. Whether it’s running, yoga, or biking, getting back into a “normal” routine is what matters. Lastly, head outside. A little sunshine can work wonders on improving your mood and acts as a little reminder that there’s a world outside of your depressive state.
Exercise is quickly becoming a key factor in fighting depression. In conjunction with therapy and medication, physical activity promotes the recovery from mood disorders. If you or a loved one is suffering from depression or anxiety, please contact your primary physician for more information on treatment plans.