Exercise to Combat Depression

January 24, 2022 by Steve Suntala1

Tips for beginning and maintaining an exercise routine or a physical activity regimen for mental wellness

  • Identify enjoyable activities and exercises: Find enjoyable exercises and activities to include in a regimen. For some people that might be walking outdoors and for others it could be yoga in their living room or a recreational basketball game.
  • Talk to a doctor: Speak with a doctor and/or mental health professional for guidance and support. Consider how an exercise program or physical activity routine fits into overall treatment.
  • Set realistic goals: Depression can cause physical symptoms such as disturbed sleep, reduced energy, appetite changes, body aches, and increased pain perception. These symptoms may decrease your motivation to exercise. Combat these symptoms by starting with small, achievable goals and gradually increasing activity. In other words, adapt the plan as needed instead of setting unrealistic expectations.
  • Analyze barriers: Figure out any obstructions to physical activity and take the steps needed to remove these barriers.
  • Do not think of exercising as a chore: Exercising can be fun. One should not view exercise as an act that has to be completed but rather as one of the tools – along with therapy, medication, etc. – that can help control depression or anxiety.
  • Prepare for obstacles: Achieving exercise or physical activity goals may not be easy. Give yourself credit for any steps you take towards your goals, no matter how small those steps are. Skipping one day does not mean you failed. Just try again and stick with it.

Physical Activity vs. Exercise

Physical activity is the act of working muscles and requires energy. Physical activity is an umbrella term that can apply to exercise, work, household chores, or leisure activities. Exercise is a structured, planned, and repetitive body movement performed to improve or maintain physical fitness. Examples of exercise include running, lifting weights, yoga, or playing basketball. Exercise helps improve and prevent hypertension, diabetes, arthritis, and other health problems. The link between exercise and mental health is not entirely clear; however, exercise and physical activity have been shown to ease symptoms of depression and anxiety. Exercising may also keep depression and anxiety away once you are feeling better.

How Regular Exercise Helps Your Mood

Exercising may improve symptoms of depression and anxiety by releasing endorphins in the brain that improve well-being. Engaging in exercise can provide advantages that boost mental health training the mind to cope with stress and breaking the cycle of negative thoughts that feed depression and anxiety. Meeting exercise goals can also boost self-confidence and some forms of exercise promote social interaction. Finally, exercise helps release neurotrophic (growth) factors that support nerve cell growth in the brain and that improve neuron connections. Specifically, scientists have noted that individuals who suffer from depression have smaller hippocampi, but exercise supports neuron growth and connection in the hippocampus leading to improvement in brain function. These improvements happen when exercise occurs regularly over time.

How Much Should You Exercise?

The American College of Sports Medicine recommends at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity cardiorespiratory exercise, 75 minutes per week of vigorous-intensity cardiorespiratory exercise, or a combination of these two intensity exercises for disease prevention.  It is possible that as little as 10-15 minutes of physical activity such as walking can make a difference in mood. Performing 30 minutes or more of exercise daily for three to five days per week can significantly improve anxiety and depression symptoms. No type of exercise is more effective than the next type at improving symptoms of depression and anxiety. The mental health benefits of exercise and physical activity only last if physical activity is part of a person’s lifestyle for a long time. For these reasons, it is important to find and incorporate physical activities and exercises that one enjoys; exercising makes combatting depression and anxiety easier.


Works Cited:

Garber, C. E., Blissmer, B. P., Deschenes, M. R., Franklin, B. A., Lamonte, M. J., Lee, I.-M. M., . . . Swain, D. P. (2011, July). Quantity and Quality of Exercise for Developing and Maintaining Cardiorespiratory, Musculoskeletal, and  Neuromotor Fitness in Apparently Healthy Adults: Guidance for Prescribing Exercise. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 43(7), 1334-1359. doi:10.1249/MSS.0b013e318213fefb

Harvard Health Publishing: Harvard Medical School. (2021, February 2). Exercise is an all-natural treatment to fight depression. Retrieved from Harvard Health: https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/exercise-is-an-all-natural-treatment-to-fight-depression

Mayo Clinic Staff. (2017, September 27). Depression and anxiety: Exercise eases symptoms. Retrieved from Mayo Clinic: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/depression/in-depth/depression-and-exercise/art-20046495

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