Exercise as a Treatment for Depression

Exercise is one of the greatest treatments there is for depression. Unfortunately, to the person who is depressed, that’s like saying running is a good treatment for a broken leg! When you are depressed, it’s hard enough to find the motivation just to get out of bed and walk through your house, much less do any formal type of exercise. However, there is a physical basis for the effects exercise can have on your mood.  That’s why it is definitely worth getting started with a good exercise routine.

Benefits of Exercise

Exercise impacts the chemicals in your brain known as endorphins.  Endorphins are neurotransmitters, which help regulate your mood.  Research has shown that people who are depressed often have imbalances in these neurotransmitters, particularly serotonin and norepinephrine.  Exercise causes your body to release endorphins and improve their flow.   Runners often refer to this as a “runner’s high”.  As a result, your mood improves with regular exercise.

You’ll also find that regular exercise will increase your energy levels.  Two typical symptoms of depression are fatigue and lack of energy.  Once you start exercising regularly, you’ll find that you feel less tired and have much more energy throughout the day.  In fact, you may find that you’ll actually feel more energetic after each workout.

Exercise can significantly improve your sleep.  Most people with depression have problems with their sleep, so this is important.  They may have problems falling asleep, wake up frequently throughout the night, or struggle with early morning wakening.  Some people with depression struggle with hypersomnia, which means they sleep many more hours than needed. Hypersomnia is sometimes a response to the fatigue that accompanies depression.  However, it is also often used as an escape from the depression.

Exercise has many other benefits as well.  It can boost your self-confidence by giving you a sense of accomplishment when you have successfully completed your workout.  Your confidence will also improve as you get in better and better shape. Exercise can help distract you from the negative thoughts that are often going through your mind – thoughts that cause much of the anxiety and depression you’re experiencing.

When you exercise outdoors, you get the added benefit of absorbing vitamin D from the sunshine.  People with depression are often deficient in vitamin D.  Going to an exercise class or working out at the gym gives you the opportunity to meet people and socialize, which is especially helpful if you’ve become isolated.

Best Types of Exercise for Depression

When it comes to exercising to help depression, there are no limits to the kinds of activities you can do. It doesn’t have to be a vigorous, high intensity activity as long as you are up and moving. The first priority is to get yourself off the couch!

Although any type of exercise is better than being sedentary, the best kind of exercise for depression is aerobic exercise.  Aerobic exercise (or “cardio” as it’s often called by fitness enthusiasts) is the type of exercise that keeps your heart rate elevated consistently for a period of time.  Good examples of aerobic exercise include running, brisk walking, cycling (including spinning), lap swimming, and climbing stairs.  If you can’t get outdoors, using a stationary bike, treadmill, or elliptical machine is a great option for getting a good aerobic workout.  Taking an aerobics class or dance exercise class is also a great workout for depression.

If the idea or running or swimming laps is not particularly appealing, you might try a type of exercise that’s both fun and provides a great aerobic workout.  Called “Zumba”, it incorporates Latin dance moves with fitness.  Zumba is available on CDs, as a Wii game, and also offered as a class at many health clubs.  Many people claim that Zumba is addictive.  This may be due to the endorphin high that it provides.  It also burns a high number of calories – more than many other types of workouts. It’s also very easy to do.  There are no wrong or right moves, just movement. It’s a great way to get in shape while helping reduce symptoms of depression.

When using exercise as a way to help depression, choose something that you enjoy so you’ll be more inclined to stick with it.  If possible, set aside the same time each day (or at least several days a week) to exercise so it becomes a regular part of your daily routine.  Many people find that exercising first thing in the morning works well because other things are less likely to interfere.  However, if that time doesn’t work you might try working out on your lunch hour or right after work.

In order to ensure you follow through with your exercise plan, you must make it a top priority. Put other unexpected things that come up on hold if possible until you have finished your exercise routine each day.  If you can find a friend to workout with you, you’ll be less inclined to miss a workout and have more fun as well.

Tips for Getting Motivated

Motivation is difficult for when you’re struggling with depression.  There is no magic formula that will give you the motivation you need. It is something that you will have to find within yourself. These are some tips that might help you:

  • Visualizing what life will be like in the future works well for some individuals. Picture yourself as leaner, more toned, and enjoying life without the cloud of depression that is hanging over you now.  Holding that vision of what you want to become may be the only motivation you need.
  • As mentioned above, get a workout buddy.  Knowing that a friend is counting on you and will be right there working out with you can provide that extra push when you don’t feel like exercising
  • Don’t allow yourself to make excuses for not exercising, even after you’ve started to feel better.  Continuing to exercise regularly will help keep depressive episodes at bay. Once you start making little excuses to skip your workout – telling yourself you’re all right or that it doesn’t matter, you are setting yourself up for a relapse.
  • Keep an exercise log.  An exercise log or journal is an effective tool for anyone who is trying to stay motivated.  A log allows you to see all your effort in print, which can have a dramatic impact on your perspective.  It will also give you a great sense of accomplishment.
  • Remember how good you felt the last time you exercised. You don’t have to convince yourself to feel better because exercise really does work. Keep reminding yourself that you are going to feel so good after you finish that you won’t want to quit!
  • Invest in some new workout clothes, including appropriate shoes, for the type of exercise you have chosen. This will boost your commitment to exercise, while making you feel pampered as well.
  • Find something that you enjoy doing. It is always easier to get motivated to do something fun than something you dread.  If exercise feels like work, you’ll have a difficult time sticking with it.

Exercise is one of the most effective natural treatments for depression.  Not only will it help reduce your symptoms, it can help keep prevent future episodes as well.

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