How Exercise Eases Depression

Depression is a debilitating mood disorder that may affect one in five Americans in their lifetime. It can cause feelings of sadness or hopelessness that last anywhere from a few weeks to years. People may experience mild depressive symptoms only once in their lives, while others are prone to frequent severe episodes over their lifetime. The more serious, intense, and long-lasting form of depression is known as Major Depressive Disorder (MDD).   

Symptoms of MDD

Symptoms of MDD may include a persistent feeling of sadness and hopelessness, loss for your usual interests and hobbies, isolating yourself from family and friends, changes in sleep and appetite patterns, fatigue, inappropriate or excessive feelings of guilt or worthlessness, difficulty with decision making, thinking and concentration, and/or thoughts of suicide. 

Long-Term Effects of MDD

The hippocampus, prefrontal cortex, and amygdala are the three parts of the brain that play a role in MDD. The hippocampus stores memories and regulates production of cortisol—a stress hormone released during times of physical and mental stress, including depression.

People with MDD experience long-term exposure to increased cortisol levels, meaning decreased production of new neurons. This causes the hippocampus to shrink and leads to memory issues.

The prefrontal cortex regulates emotions, decision making, and forming memories. Exposure to increased cortisol can cause the prefrontal cortex to shrink as well. 

The amygdala facilitates emotional responses, such as fear and pleasure. MDD causes the amygdala to enlarge and becomes more active when exposed to elevated cortisol levels over time. This affects sleep patterns and can cause the body to release irregular amounts of hormones and other chemicals.  

Treating Symptoms of MDD

Balancing the amount of cortisol and other neurochemicals in the brain can help reverse the affects on the brain and reduce MDD symptoms. Psychotropic medications and psychotherapy can help balance those chemicals. Consult with your doctor about which treatments may be best for you.

Exercise to Ease Symptoms

Exercise can make a big difference, even if it seems like the last thing you want to do. Although the link between depression and exercise is not entirely clear, working out and other physical activity can ease symptoms of depression and prevent them from coming back.

Exercise releases endorphins, which are natural painkillers and help you feel good. Exercise helps take your mind off the cycle of negative thoughts. Meeting exercise goals, even small ones, helps you feel better about yourself. Physical activity can make you interact with others more, easing social isolation. When you do something positive like exercise to cope with symptoms of depression and make it a habit, you have created a healthy coping strategy.

Ways to get in physical activity

  • Walking or running
  • Going to the gym
  • Team sports (basketball, softball, etc)
  • Gardening
  • Household chores or washing your car
  • Taking the stairs

Research shows that 30 minutes of exercise three to five days a week may significantly improve depression, but even 15 minutes a day can improve your mood. Regular exercise can reduce symptoms of depression, and the effects can be long-lasting. A vigorous exercise session can help alleviate symptoms for hours, and a regular routine may reduce symptoms over time. Exercise and physical activity improve mental health by helping the brain “cope” better with stress.

Here are some tips that can help you stick to regular physical exercise:

  1. Find forms of physical activity that are enjoyable. Don’t be afraid to try new things and change up your routine throughout the week. Do what you enjoy to help you stick with it.
  2. Set reasonable goals. Be patient with yourself when starting a new exercise program. Set small and reasonable goals and aim for consistency rather than perfect workouts.  A 20-minute walk five times a week is better than only being a “weekend warrior.” Frequency is key when it comes to maintaining mental and physical health.
  3. Don’t think of exercise as a chore. Instead, think of it as a tool to help you get better and maintain your best self. Try not to look at exercise as another “should” in your life that you are not living up to; you’ll associate it with failure. Even just parking your car further away at work and the store will allow you to walk more in your daily routine.
  4. Analyze your barriers. Figure out what is stopping you from being more physically active. If you feel self-conscious, start by exercising at home. If you have a small budget, look at free options like walking. If you can think about what is stopping you,  then you can probably find a solution.
  5. Recruit an “exercise buddy.” You are more likely to stick to your exercise routine when you have to stay committed to a friend, partner, or colleague.
  6. Listen to music, audiobook, or podcasts while exercising. Many people find listening to something they enjoy makes exercising more fun.
  7. Prepare for setbacks and obstacles. Give yourself credit for every step in the right direction, no matter how small. If you skip exercise one day, that does not mean you can’t maintain an exercise routine and should quit. Just try again the next day. 

Like all forms of therapy, the effect can vary. Some people respond positively, while others may experience only a modest, short-term benefit. If you exercise regularly but depression symptoms still interfere with your daily living, see your doctor or mental health professional. Exercise and physical activity are great ways to ease symptoms of depression, but they aren’t a substitute for psychotherapy or medications.

Anita Varma, M.D has been conducting research since 2006 in clinical trials for schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorder, ADHD, and anxiety. Her experience includes adult, geriatric, and pediatric treatment. For more information about clinical research and to see if you qualify for a current study, call Research Strategies Memphis at 901.685.8890 or visit Researchmemphis.com

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