A growing body of research suggests exercise can help beat depression and anxiety, says exercise physiologist Michael Hennessy.
Did you know that one in five women, and one in eight men experience depression at some point in their lives? For most sufferers, both medication and cognitive therapy may be a large component of effective treatment. But according to more and more research, exercise can also play a huge role in beating depression.
Exercise vs medication
Medication can be an important part of treatment, but studies have shown that exercise may achieve results that are just as effective. One study, comparing the results of older adults suffering from depression, found that after 16 weeks, those who were treated with exercise had reduced symptoms on par with those treated with medication. Although the anti-depressants provided initial results more quickly, the exercisers were much less likely to relapse if they continued an active lifestyle.
How does exercise help?
Research suggests that exercise can combat depression in a number of ways.
Reduces stress hormone production: During prolonged periods of stress, anxiety and depression, our bodies produce excess amounts of the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. Over time, continuous release of these hormones can negatively affect mood. Exercise reduces, and may even reverse, the effects of these hormones.
Reduces feelings of having no ‘control’: When your life feels as if it’s out of your control, exercise can provide you with an active sense of control. Research has also shown that exercise boosts your self-confidence and self-esteem.
Increases endorphin production: Exercise increases the production of mood lifting endorphins, also known as an ‘exercise high’. More good news: Scientists have found that this ‘high’ can occur after just one exercise session.
Lessens lethargy: When you exercise, your heart rate, breathing and circulation to your brain and muscles all increase –raising your metabolism and making you feel more energetic.
Arrests the cycle of inactivity: Exercise increases the release of the ‘happy’ hormone, serotonin, which regulates not only your mood, but also your sleep, libido and appetite. Improving your sleep/wake cycles (circadian rhythms) results in better quality sleep, helping to break the cycle of inactivity.
Adam*, 32, exercised his way off anti-depressants.
“For years, I was depressed, stressed out at work and overweight. In 2008, I’d had enough so I joined a running group and started boxercise classes. The regular exercise helped me lose weight, which improved my confidence. After a while, I really started to feel much better. Training with the new friends I’d made was a powerful motivator to continue exercising, too. Eventually, I worked my way up to completing a half marathon! I was so proud of myself on that day. But by far, the biggest benefit of exercising was being able to reduce my antidepressants. Today, I’m no longer on medication and I feel in control of my anxiety and depression.”
*Name has been changed.
7 ways to get started
Finding the motivation to exercise can be tough, but the following tips can make exercising easier.
Start small: Anything is better than nothing – even small bouts of exercise increase endorphins and improve mood, according to research. Short bouts of exercise can often be the springboard to longer sessions; resulting in even more benefits.
Choose something you enjoy: The most effective exercise plan is the one you stick to! Choosing an activity you enjoy makes it easier to stay with your routine.
Make it social: Studies have shown a link between social isolation and depression, so recruit an exercise buddy, or join a fitness class or sports team, increasing your activity levels and your sense of connectedness with other people.
Remove the obstacles: People suffering from depression often report obstacles that inhibit their ability to exercise, such as being time-poor, excessive cost, embarrassment, or family/work commitments. Asking your friends or family to help you jump these hurdles will lessen your internal objections.
Get your heart pumping: Research shows that the greater the intensity of exercise, the greater the mood enhancing benefits. So whatever activity you choose, make sure it raises your heart rate and gets you moving.
Get regular: Just one session results in a short term mood boost, but 30 minutes of exercise, at least three times a week, provides an even greater reduction in depression.
Just get moving: A 2007 study comparing supervised exercise programs with home-based exercise programs found both reduced depressive symptoms. In other words, it doesn’t matter whether you use a personal trainer, walk around the block or use an exercise DVD – you’ll feel the benefits of any kind of activity.
How you can make a difference
Exercise is clearly beneficial to many sufferers of depression and anxiety, but it should not be used as the only course of treatment for patients with severe depression. In these cases, it is best to seek help from a psychologist, counsellor or consult one of the following resources: