Why Exercise Is Your First Line of Defense Against Depression
When it comes to beating depression, exercise probably isn’t the first thing to come to mind. But it should be!
Accumulating research shows that exercise is one of the best ways to treat and prevent serious depression. Add the fact that exercise protects against a variety of chronic diseases and conveys powerful cognitive benefits for the brain, and there is no reason not to adopt a regular exercise habit today.
This article will review the research on how exercise safeguards you from depression and give you recommendations for incorporating a training program into your daily life.
When it comes to treating depression, the standard interventions are talk therapy and medication. Cognitive behavioral therapy is one of the most popular and effective forms of talk therapy in which people work with a therapist to develop skills and habits that can help treat depression. Medication interventions focus on altering brain chemistry, generally by raising levels of serotonin, a mood boosting neurotransmitter that is depleted in people with depression.
Exercise is interesting because it targets both habit building and changes in brain chemistry, while conveying additional benefits that appear to make the difference in treating and preventing depression. How does it do this?
There are a few theories:
#1: Exercise leads to the release of beta endorphins, which are feel-good chemicals that give the sensation of “runner’s high.” Higher intensities of exercise appear to stimulate larger release of endorphins for a greater feel-good effect.
#2: Exercise may alter brain chemistry, lowering stress and increasing synthesis of mood-raising neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, which are diminished with depression.
#3: Exercise raises body temperature, which has been linked to a drop in depressive symptoms. Increases in temperature of specific brain regions such as the brain stem can lead to an overall feeling of relaxation and reduction in muscular tension.
#4: Physical activity is distracting and can take your mind off your worries. Activities that distract have been shown to be more effective for managing depression than more self-focused or introspective activities such as journal keeping.
#5: Exercise increases self-efficacy, which is the confidence that one has the ability to complete a task with the desired outcome. Developing a successful exercise habit provides a meaningful mastery experience as an individual perseveres and overcomes the physical challenges of their training program.
A fascinating study from Duke University shows the impact of exercise on depression and allows us to consider these theories in action. This study enrolled 166 adults with clinical depression and divided them into three groups:
One group received an anti-depressant (sertraline, which is also known as Zoloft)
One group did 30 minutes of aerobic running exercise 3 times a week
One group received the anti-depressant and performed the exercise protocol
After 16 weeks, all three treatments produced similar results. Treating depression with exercise was just as effective as taking an anti-depressant. Interestingly, combining the two treatments had no additive effect and was as effective for reducing symptoms of depression as doing either one individually. Where things really get interesting is when you look at what happened over the long-term.
After the 16-week study, the participants were sent on their own without any formal treatment. Six months later, the researchers followed up with them and found the following:
The group that had performed the exercise program had significantly lower rates of depression than those in the medication or combination group. In the exercise group, only 8 percent of participants had relapsed into serious depression, whereas in the medication group 31 percent had relapsed and in the combination group 38 percent were again suffering from clinical depression.
The researchers were surprised and intrigued by the results. They thought that combining exercise with medication would confer an additional advantage over either treatment alone, but the opposite was the case. How did they explain it?
They theorized that exercise allows for the development of positive self-regard and personal mastery, which has depression-reducing effects. The use of medication may undermine this benefit by prioritizing an alternative, less self-confirming attribution for one’s condition. Instead of incorporating the belief “I was dedicated and worked hard with the exercise program; it wasn’t easy, but I beat this depression,” patients might incorporate the belief that “I took an anti-depressant and got better.”
Another way to look at this is that exercise changes how you view yourself and proves that you can change positively, restoring self-worth. In contrast, the combination group had the opportunity to attribute improvements to medication, eliminating the empowerment and self-confidence booster that the exercise group experienced.
We know that self-confidence is an important predictor in the ability to make changes in our lives. The effect even applies to people who use positive self-talk. Telling yourself that you can overcome a challenge will give you an edge over someone who is constantly doubting themselves or telling themselves they will fail. If you believe that you have the ability to work yourself out of depression, then you’ll succeed when you put in the work.
Interestingly, researchers even identified an “anti-medication” sentiment among study participants who were in the combination group who believed that the medication interfered with the beneficial effects of exercise. There is no known physiological basis for such a belief and researchers theorize this belief might have to do with psychological factors, which is another way to say that it was “all in their heads.”
How Powerful Can Exercise Be For Reducing Depression?
During the 6-month follow-up period, for every 50-minute increment in exercise per week, participants experienced a 50 percent decrease in the odds of having depression. This means that if you’re not exercising at all, simply getting out there for a total of an hour a week will cut your risk of depression by half. Going for a 10-minute walk every day after lunch will improve your self-confidence and lower your chance of becoming depressed.
This study is supported by several other studies that show that a range of exercise modalities can treat and prevent depression. Strength training, walking, running, pilates, yoga, and dancing have all been shown to reduce symptoms of clinical depression. The following are tips for getting the greatest benefits from an exercise:
Do Something Every Day
Planning to be active every day gets you into a routine and conveys the mood-boosting benefits of exercise. Being consistent also lets you reap the physical rewards of exercise: Stronger muscles, less body fat, greater mobility, and lower risk of disease.
Try Strength Training
Lifting weights builds physical and psychological strength. It’s incredibly rewarding to see your weights go up and achieve physical goals that you were not previously capable of. Strength training is also varied so that the time goes by quickly.
Include A Form of Aerobic Exercise You Enjoy
Some people like running. Others swear by Zumba. For some, fitness classes or boot camp are the way to go. Or maybe you like intervals in which you walk as fast as possible for a few minutes interspersed with an easy pace. The key is to find a form of exercise that you can look forward to even if there are moments when it feels hard. Start with 10 to 20 minutes three days a week and work up from there.
Be Active In Daily Life
Spontaneous physical activity outside of regularly planned exercise will boost mood, raising body temperature and modifying brain chemistry. Anything that breaks up sedentary time, whether it’s doing chores, running errands, playing with the kids, or walking the dog will pay off with brain benefits.
Use A Training Log
Try logging your workouts on a calendar. Write down what you did and how you felt. A training log allows you to see your progress visually. It provides a powerful reinforcement for low points or when you’re not sure you want to exercise.
A lot of people say they will start to exercise some day in the future. They put it off, waiting for things to change. But change starts with action. Jump right in! Go outside and take a walk today!