If everyone knew that exercise worked as well as Zoloft and Wellbutrin, then I don’t think this disease wouldn’t be affecting so many people. In Britain, doctors now use exercise as a first-line depression treatment, but it’s vastly underutilized in the United States and other countries. I’m not saying that everyone should give up their medication or talk therapy, but the studies have proven that exercise can help depression and plays a crucial role in mental health.
Does Exercise Help Depression?
There are very good placebo control studies comparing antidepressants and exercise, and the effect on mood is the same. In one 2005 study conducted by researchers at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, 30 minutes of moderately intense exercise five days a week reduced symptoms of depression by nearly half after 12 weeks. A 2000 Duke study showed exercise to be just as effective as Zoloft at treating depression. That’s really just the tip of the iceberg as there’s surplus of evidence showing how essential exercise is to one’s mental health.
Effects of Exercise on Depression
Dr. John Ratey, a Harvard psychiatrist, says “Depression is an erosion of connections in your life and between your brain cells but exercise, in fact, reestablishes those connections.” We need to move beyond the negative image of exercise as always being a battle between pain and gain on the road to a distant and difficult goal like weight loss or health. Just one workout can release chemicals in your brain that will increase your mood.
Studies suggest that endorphins produced directly in the brain contribute to the general feeling of well-being that usually comes along with exercise. Exercise immediately elevates levels of norepinephrine in certain areas of the brain. It wakes up the brain and gets it going and improves self- esteem.
Exercise also boosts dopamine, which improves mood, motivation, feelings of wellness and attention. Chronic exercise increases dopamine storage in the brain and that provides a feeling of satisfaction when we have accomplished something. Serotonin is equally affected by exercise, and it’s important for mood, impulse control, and self-esteem. It also helps stave off stress by counteracting cortisol.
Another benefit of exercise is you feel good about yourself, and that has a positive effect that can’t be traced to a particular chemical or area in the brain. If you’ve been feeling down and you start to exercise and feel better, the sense that you’re going to be OK and that you can count on yourself shifts your entire attitude.
Exercise and Depression
The good news is you don’t have to become a marathon runner to benefit. You’ll even feel the difference from a 30-minute walk 4-5x per week. That’s really the minimum you’ll need to feel the effect. If you want to do more, then great. You can try weight training or interval training which have also been found to be really effective.
Getting Motivated to Exercise When Depressed
So I’ve talked about why you should exercise, but I speak from personal experience when I say it is hard to get moving when you’re depressed. When my depression hit, I had no energy or motivation. The key is to start small. Literally, start with a 5 minute walk. The first step out the front door will be the hardest, but it’s worth it.
Think of the consequences if you don’t exercise. You may feel bad now, but you’ll feel worse if you don’t get up and start moving. Think of how good you’ll feel when you’re all done. It’s that feeling of accomplishment that will help you come back the next day and do it again.
Here are some fitness ideas to help you get started.
– Find a friend or loved one to go working out with. You’ll get support and accountability.
– Schedule a walk on the treadmill or stationary bike ride at the same time as your favorite TV program. It will take your mind off the exercise and the time will fly by.
– Try a beginner workout from HASfit. Many of the workouts are only 5-15 minutes and I’ll be there to motivate you through it.
– Participate in your favorite sport or activity that forces you to get up and moving. Try things like soccer, walking your dog, shopping, or even throwing around a Frisbee. It doesn’t matter what it is, just get out and be active.
– Check out my video on “How to Get Motivated to Exercise” for more tips.
Exercise isn’t a magical depression cure, but it is definitely the best of the natural depression remedies. What do you have to lose? It just takes one 5 minute workout or walk to get the ball rolling. Success isn’t obtained from one giant step, but from the sum of many small steps. Take one small step today and see how great you feel afterwards.