by Chris Woolston, M.S.
Can exercise really fight depression?
A gym membership and a new pair of walking shoes aren't magic bullets against depression, but there's no doubt that your mood is closely tied to your exercise habits. Many studies have found that people who exercise regularly tend to be less anxious and depressed than people who rarely work out. Exercise programs have been shown to help improve the moods of heart attack survivors, cancer patients, and others facing serious health challenges. You probably know yourself that you feel alive and energetic after a long walk or a good tennis game than after a TV marathon.
Still, if you're hoping to walk (or run or swim) away the blues, don't expect miracles. Recent studies suggest that exercise by itself has only modest power to ease depression. A 2009 review of 25 previous studies by the Cochrane Collaboration, which evaluates the evidence for various therapies, concluded that exercise was about as helpful for depression as cognitive behavioral therapy. But when all of the studies were put together, the improvements weren't statistically significant -- in other words, they weren't strong enough to rule out the possibility of chance.
Exercise can help you be healthier and happier -- no doubt. But if you're struggling with depression, its only one step in the right direction.
How does exercise help relieve depression?
Focusing your mind and body on something other than your problems is obviously going to make you feel better -- at least for a little while. Exercise also seems to change your brain chemistry for the better. Studies have found that working out gives you a shot of serotonin, the same brain chemical that antidepressant medications try to promote. On a basic level, getting stronger, healthier and leaner will help you feel better about yourself.
But recent research suggests that the connection between mood and exercise isn't completely straight-forward. For example, a Dutch study of nearly 3,000 pairs of identical twins found no sign that people who got more exercise were any less depressed or anxious than their siblings. The researchers concluded that genetics alone could largely explain why people who exercise a lot seem to enjoy protection against depression. The same genetic combo that makes a person energetic and eager to exercise also makes them naturally inclined to have positive moods.
What type of exercise is best?
Whether you're concerned about your mood, your heart, or your waistline, everyone agrees that any type of exercise is better than none. But when it comes to battling depression, its not easy to say which type of exercise works best. In studies, the best results have come from structured, closely monitored classes. In such cases, just being around other people and getting encouragement from a professional could be at least as helpful as the exercise itself.
Indeed, studies suggest that a wider social network may be another reason exercise is so valuable. In a Norwegian study of more than 40,000 people, researchers found that people who engaged in regular physical activity in their leisure time were less likely to have symptoms of depression. The level of exercise intensity made no difference, but they seemed to benefit more when they had higher levels of social support and engagement.
If you'd like to improve your mood through exercise, you might try finding a class that you really enjoy. A walking group could be a good option; you'll get all of the social benefits of a class, but you won't need to pay registration fees or get any special equipment or training. Whether you're working out in a group or by yourself, it's important to find an activity that brings you some joy and satisfaction. Sweat alone is no antidepressant. If you aren't enjoying what you're doing, you won't feel any better when you're finished.
How long will it take to feel better?
A small study published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found that people suffering from major depression felt better after a single 30-minute workout. But for lasting benefits, you'll have to make a long-term commitment. A report in the Harvard Mental Health Newsletter recommends trying an exercise program for at least two months.
How can I make myself exercise when I can barely get out of bed?
If you are too depressed to even think about exercise, you should talk to your doctor about psychotherapy or medications first. Once you feel a little better, you can try to make exercise a part of your overall plan for recovery.
National Institute of Mental Health
5600 Fishers Lane
Rockville, MD 20857
Phone: (800) 421-4211
National Foundation for Depressive Illness, Inc.
P.O. Box 2257
New York, NY 10016
Phone: (800) 826-3632
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