Depression affects around 9.5% of the population of adults in the U.S. with some 17% suffering from a major episode at some point. Can exercise ease depression? It may sound too good to be true, yet studies show that exercise has many real benefits, and one of those is helping to reduce or even, in some cases, alleviate depression. That’s why it is important to understand the link between exercise and depression.
With so many people around the world regularly suffering from this debilitating ailment, “just add exercise” may seem too simplistic at first glance (or else it seems that everyone would be cured easily). However, studies show that before turning to antidepressant drugs for mild to moderate depression, or even more extreme methods of treating bouts of depression, focusing on exercise as a viable treatment option is a good idea. And even if antidepressants do appear to be the part of the solution, adding exercise can improve treatment outcomes for many.
What is Depression?
According to studies, depression is a leading cause of disability in the world. The World Health Organization says there are over 350 million people globally who suffer from depression.
“Depression” encompasses many levels of illness that dictate the way you feel and can influence the way you function, including curbing your ability to work, exercise, socialize, sleep, eat, and more. Symptoms of depression are numerous and can vary from person to person but will often consist of several of the following:
- Difficulty sleeping
- Significant weight gain or weight loss
- Excessive sleep or very little sleep
- Excessive eating or not eating enough
- Excessive spending
- Obsessive thoughts
- Mood swings
- Feelings of being unworthy
- Low energy
- Loss of interest in most activities
And this is just the short list—there are more symptoms related to depression. Usually, these symptoms will persist for more than a few weeks in true depressive episodes. It’s important to note that everyone goes through simple bouts of depression in life, and you can easily (and in a normal manner) experience “situational” depression. For example, if a beloved friend or family member passes away, it’s completely normal to feel many of the above symptoms, and there is no set time limit for how long you feel this way. However, when time passes and your symptoms remain and do not lessen, you may be suffering from a more severe type of depression.
Types of Depression
“Situational” depression is certainly a real thing and so is “seasonal” depression. If you’ve ever had the “winter blues,” then you’ve likely experienced a form of seasonal depression. These two common types of depression are normal occurrences and don’t usually require treatment. If, however, symptoms persist for more than two weeks, it may be time to think about consulting your physician.
“Major” depression consists of feeling at least five of the previously mentioned symptoms on a regular basis for several weeks.
What Are the Typical Treatments for Depression?
Often, if you are diagnosed with depression, your doctor may prescribe what are known as antidepressants. Depression has long been treated pharmaceutically, but there are also other alternative treatments. Yes, there are other options available to treat depression, but they may not seem quite as attractive as exercise once you delve deeper into them.
Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) is an excellent choice of treatment. This short-term therapy involves talking with a therapist to help develop some goal-oriented action plans and to talk about the feelings you’re having, why they may be occurring, and how to overcome them. Psychotherapy can be done alone or in groups and can be effective, especially when combined with other forms of treatment.
ECT (electroconvulsive therapy) is a more extreme treatment and involves shocking your brain with electrodes to basically “reset” abnormal thinking. Another more invasive type of treatment is called repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) and uses magnetic forces to stimulate and activate certain areas of your brain.
There are other types of therapies available, of course, and if you are experiencing depression, we encourage you to work with your healthcare practitioner to explore your options.
However, considering the alternatives and their potential side effects, exercise to ease depression appears to be a more and more attractive option and can be used as part of any treatment plan.
Exercise and Depression: How Does it Work?
Remember, there are many medications that will help temper the effects of depression. However, if you can stay medication-free, it’s a great healthy option—without side effects.
Studies are now showing that exercise really may have the power to ease depression. “Using genetic data, we found evidence that higher levels of physical activity may causally reduce risk for depression,” says Karmel Choi, PhD, of the Psychiatric and Neurodevelopmental Genetics Unit in the MGH Center for Genomic Medicine.
Is this actually a classic case of “which came first: the chicken or the egg?” Does being depressed cause one to exercise less or does less exercise lead to one being depressed?
Regardless of which occurs first, when you exercise, your body is able to rid itself of stress and even releases endorphins, the natural feel-good hormones, that can help reduce depression and boost your mood.
How much exercise is required? According to Dr. Choi, any amount of physical exercise is helpful, but research does point to a greater preventative effect with larger amounts of exercise. Yet even one hour a week has been shown to prevent depression. And it appears that whatever type of exercise you choose can be effective—be it walking, running, weight training, yoga, or others.
The research suggests that the positive effects of exercise are independent of any fitness gains and that focusing on frequency and consistency rather than duration or intensity is most beneficial.
All that being said, it appears that a prescriptive and non-self-monitored exercise program seems to have the best results when it comes to preventing and even alleviating the symptoms of depression. In other words, it’s a good idea to find a healthcare professional you trust to help provide advice and support for your exercise program.
What’s the bottom line? Do your exercise. Regular monitored exercise programs can make a big difference for many people when it comes to dealing with depression. Can exercise ease depression? The answer is a resounding YES!
Important Note: Depression can be a serious illness. Reaching out for help and support is a sign of strength. If you find yourself depressed, please seek help from your doctor, mental health professional, friend, or someone else you trust. If you think you may hurt yourself or are considering suicide, please seek emergency help immediately, such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 in the U.S., your doctor, or close friend or loved one.