Best exercises for depression

Contents

Exercise for depression: It really does help—here’s how to get patients moving

Ms. H, age 26, is being evaluated for moderate to severe depressive symptoms, including oversleeping and overeating. She has had difficulty adhering to medication in the past and is ambivalent about taking antidepressants. She takes a passive approach to managing her depression, preferring to “wait for it to pass.”

Her psychiatrist prescribes fluoxetine, 20 mg in the morning, and recommends that Ms. H change her coping strategies from napping and snacking to increased physical activity. She encourages Ms. H to think about what activities interest her and to set exercise goals.

Ms. H says she has considered buying exercise equipment (an elliptical machine) and increasing her walking outside. She sets a goal to walk 20 minutes most days and to spend 10 to 15 minutes using the elliptical machine while watching television.

Physical activity’s mental health benefits are less well-known than its well-documented medical benefits—reduced risk of heart disease, hypertension, and diabetes; weight control; bone mass preservation; better sleep, and improved cholesterol levels.1 By encouraging exercise, you can improve patients’ mood, well-being, and quality of life, independent of medication and psychotherapy. In this article, we:

  • explore the relationship between physical activity and mental health
  • compare exercise with medication and psychotherapies for easing depression
  • discuss counseling strategies shown to be effective in helping sedentary patients become more physically active.

Table 1

Why physical activity may improve mental health

  • Changes in neurotransmitters—noradrenaline, serotonin, and dopamine—are associated with improved mood
  • Increased steroid reserves become accessible to counteract stress
  • Exercise reduces tension by lowering resting muscle activity potential
  • Increased body temperature is associated with sedative effects
  • Exercise releases endorphins, neuropeptides that bind to opioid receptors in the brain and have potent analgesic activity

Psychological theories
Physical activity:

  • increases self-efficacy, self esteem, self-sufficiency
  • induces a meditative, relaxed state
  • distracts from daily stress and anxiety
  • provides positive interactions with people and nature
  • is a form of biofeedback that teaches the individual to regulate autonomic activity

Source: References 10 and 11

Mental benefits of exercise

Adults who exercise regularly report lower levels of depressive and anxiety disorders than the overall U.S. population.2 As a therapeutic intervention, exercise has been studied primarily in depressed individuals, although some data also support its efficacy in:

  • reducing anxiety symptoms in panic disorder3
  • reducing disruptive behavior in developmentally disabled patients4
  • alleviating chronic fatigue symptoms5
  • improving body esteem in patients with body image disturbance6
  • increasing function in chronic pain7
  • reducing urges to smoke and improving smoking abstinence among nicotine-dependent individuals.8

Why exercise helps. Mechanisms that would explain exercise’s positive effect on mood are not well understood.9 Physiologic and psychological hypotheses have been suggested (Table 1),10,11 and researchers are attempting to elucidate them by using animal models.13

Case report: Feeling more energetic

At follow-up 6 weeks later, Ms. H. reported a substantial reduction in depressive symptoms. She noted increased energy, improved sleep, decreased overeating, higher self-esteem, and greater confidence in her ability to manage her depression.

Exercising also helped structure her day. She noticed that on days she did not exercise she was more likely to take a nap, miss her medication, or feel pessimistic about her depression.

Exercise as an antidepressant

Exercise vs psychotherapy. Exercise has been shown to be more effective at reducing depressive symptoms than no treatment, occupational therapy, cognitive therapy, health seminars, routine care, or meditation. Interventions used in these meta-analyses ranged from nonaerobic exercise training several times a week to 1 hour of supervised running 4 times a week.12 Literature reviews also have concluded that exercise training compares favorably with individual or group psychotherapy and with cognitive therapy for treating depression.7

Exercise vs medication. Exercise training has also been compared with drug therapy in treating depression.

In a randomized, controlled trial, 156 men and women over age 50 with major depression received exercise training, sertraline, or exercise plus sertraline. Subjects in the exercise groups completed 40 minutes of aerobic exercise (biking or brisk walking/ jogging) 3 times a week. Subjects treated with sertraline received 50 to 200 mg/d, depending on response.

After 16 weeks, all three groups were significantly improved, with no clinically or statistically significant differences in depressive symptoms, as measured with the Hamilton Rating Scale for Depression (HRSD) and Beck Depression Inventory.13

In a follow-up study 6 months later,14 the exercise group had significantly lower rates of relapse (defined as HRSD scores >15 and meeting diagnostic criteria) than did the medication group. Combining exercise with medication did not provide an added benefit in preventing relapse.

Exercise as monotherapy. Some studies have investigated using exercise instead of medication and psychotherapy. Many of these trials, however, were limited by methodologic weaknesses such as nonrandomized samples or lack of appropriate control groups.12

The Mental Health Benefits of Exercise

You already know that exercise is good for your body. But did you know it’s also effective in dealing with depression, anxiety, stress, and more?

Exercise is not just about aerobic capacity and muscle size. Sure, exercise can improve your physical health and your physique, trim your waistline, improve your sex life, and even add years to your life. But that’s not what motivates most people to stay active.

People who exercise regularly tend to do so because it gives them an enormous sense of well-being. They feel more energetic throughout the day, sleep better at night, have sharper memories, and feel more relaxed and positive about themselves and their lives. And it’s also powerful medicine for many common mental health challenges.

Regular exercise can have a profoundly positive impact on depression, anxiety, ADHD, and more. It also relieves stress, improves memory, helps you sleep better, and boosts your overall mood. And you don’t have to be a fitness fanatic to reap the benefits. Research indicates that modest amounts of exercise can make a difference. No matter your age or fitness level, you can learn to use exercise as a powerful tool to feel better.

Exercise and depression

Studies show that exercise can treat mild to moderate depression as effectively as antidepressant medication—but without the side-effects, of course. As one example, a recent study done by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that running for 15 minutes a day or walking for an hour reduces the risk of major depression by 26%. In addition to relieving depression symptoms, research also shows that maintaining an exercise schedule can prevent you from relapsing.

Exercise is a powerful depression fighter for several reasons. Most importantly, it promotes all kinds of changes in the brain, including neural growth, reduced inflammation, and new activity patterns that promote feelings of calm and well-being. It also releases endorphins, powerful chemicals in your brain that energize your spirits and make you feel good. Finally, exercise can also serve as a distraction, allowing you to find some quiet time to break out of the cycle of negative thoughts that feed depression.

Exercise and anxiety

Exercise is a natural and effective anti-anxiety treatment. It relieves tension and stress, boosts physical and mental energy, and enhances well-being through the release of endorphins. Anything that gets you moving can help, but you’ll get a bigger benefit if you pay attention instead of zoning out.

Try to notice the sensation of your feet hitting the ground, for example, or the rhythm of your breathing, or the feeling of the wind on your skin. By adding this mindfulness element—really focusing on your body and how it feels as you exercise—you’ll not only improve your physical condition faster, but you may also be able to interrupt the flow of constant worries running through your head.

Exercise and stress

Ever noticed how your body feels when you’re under stress? Your muscles may be tense, especially in your face, neck, and shoulders, leaving you with back or neck pain, or painful headaches. You may feel a tightness in your chest, a pounding pulse, or muscle cramps. You may also experience problems such as insomnia, heartburn, stomachache, diarrhea, or frequent urination. The worry and discomfort of all these physical symptoms can in turn lead to even more stress, creating a vicious cycle between your mind and body.

Exercising is an effective way to break this cycle. As well as releasing endorphins in the brain, physical activity helps to relax the muscles and relieve tension in the body. Since the body and mind are so closely linked, when your body feels better so, too, will your mind.

Exercise and ADHD

Exercising regularly is one of the easiest and most effective ways to reduce the symptoms of ADHD and improve concentration, motivation, memory, and mood. Physical activity immediately boosts the brain’s dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin levels—all of which affect focus and attention. In this way, exercise works in much the same way as ADHD medications such as Ritalin and Adderall.

Exercise and PTSD and trauma

Evidence suggests that by really focusing on your body and how it feels as you exercise, you can actually help your nervous system become “unstuck” and begin to move out of the immobilization stress response that characterizes PTSD or trauma. Instead of allowing your mind to wander, pay close attention to the physical sensations in your joints and muscles, even your insides as your body moves. Exercises that involve cross movement and that engage both arms and legs—such as walking (especially in sand), running, swimming, weight training, or dancing—are some of your best choices.

Outdoor activities like hiking, sailing, mountain biking, rock climbing, whitewater rafting, and skiing (downhill and cross-country) have also been shown to reduce the symptoms of PTSD.

Other mental and emotional benefits of exercise

Sharper memory and thinking. The same endorphins that make you feel better also help you concentrate and feel mentally sharp for tasks at hand. Exercise also stimulates the growth of new brain cells and helps prevent age-related decline.

Higher self-esteem. Regular activity is an investment in your mind, body, and soul. When it becomes habit, it can foster your sense of self-worth and make you feel strong and powerful. You’ll feel better about your appearance and, by meeting even small exercise goals, you’ll feel a sense of achievement.

Better sleep. Even short bursts of exercise in the morning or afternoon can help regulate your sleep patterns. If you prefer to exercise at night, relaxing exercises such as yoga or gentle stretching can help promote sleep.

More energy. Increasing your heart rate several times a week will give you more get-up-and-go. Start off with just a few minutes of exercise per day, and increase your workout as you feel more energized.

Stronger resilience. When faced with mental or emotional challenges in life, exercise can help you cope in a healthy way, instead of resorting to alcohol, drugs, or other negative behaviors that ultimately only make your symptoms worse. Regular exercise can also help boost your immune system and reduce the impact of stress.

Reaping the mental health benefits of exercise is easier than you think

Wondering just how much activity will give you a mental health boost? It’s probably not as much as you think. You don’t need to devote hours out of your busy day to train at the gym, sweat buckets, or run mile after monotonous mile. You can reap all the physical and mental health benefits of exercise with 30-minutes of moderate exercise five times a week. Two 15-minute or even three 10-minute exercise sessions can also work just as well.

Even a little bit of activity is better than nothing

If that still seems intimidating, don’t despair. Even just a few minutes of physical activity are better than none at all. If you don’t have time for 15 or 30 minutes of exercise, or if your body tells you to take a break after 5 or 10 minutes, for example, that’s okay, too. Start with 5- or 10-minute sessions and slowly increase your time. The more you exercise, the more energy you’ll have, so eventually you’ll feel ready for a little more. The key is to commit to some moderate physical activity—however little—on most days. As exercising becomes habit, you can slowly add extra minutes or try different types of activities. If you keep at it, the benefits of exercise will begin to pay off.

Can’t find time to exercise during the week? Be a weekend warrior

A recent study in the United Kingdom found that people who squeeze their exercise routines into one or two sessions during the weekend experience almost as many health benefits as those who work out more often. So don’t let a busy schedule at work, home, or school be an excuse to avoid activity. Get moving whenever you can find the time—your mind and body will thank you!

You don’t have to suffer to get results

Research shows that moderate levels of exercise are best for most people. Moderate means:

  1. That you breathe a little heavier than normal, but are not out of breath. For example, you should be able to chat with your walking partner, but not easily sing a song.
  2. That your body feels warmer as you move, but not overheated or very sweaty.

Overcoming mental health obstacles to exercise

So now you know that exercise will help you feel much better and that it doesn’t take as much effort as you might have thought. But taking that first step is still easier said than done. Exercise obstacles are very real—particularly when you’re also struggling with mental health. Here are some common barriers and how you can get past them.

Feeling exhausted. When you’re tired or stressed, it feels like working out will just make it worse. But the truth is that physical activity is a powerful energizer. Studies show that regular exercise can dramatically reduce fatigue and increase your energy levels. If you are really feeling tired, promise yourself a 5-minute walk. Chances are, you’ll be able to go five more minutes.

Feeling overwhelmed. When you’re stressed or depressed, the thought of adding another obligation can seem overwhelming. Working out just doesn’t seem doable. If you have children, managing childcare while you exercise can be a big hurdle. Just remember that physical activity helps us do everything else better. If you begin thinking of physical activity as a priority, you will soon find ways to fit small amounts into a busy schedule.

Feeling hopeless. Even if you’re starting at “ground zero,” you can still workout. Exercise helps you get in shape. If you have no experience exercising, start slow with low-impact movement a few minutes each day.

Feeling bad about yourself. Are you your own worst critic? It’s time to try a new way of thinking about your body. No matter your weight, age or fitness level, there are others like you with the same goal of getting fit. Try surrounding yourself with people in your shoes. Take a class with people at a variety of fitness levels. Accomplishing even the smallest fitness goals will help you gain body confidence.

Feeling pain. If you have a disability, severe weight problem, arthritis, or any injury or illness that limits your mobility, talk to your healthcare provider about ways to safely exercise. You shouldn’t ignore pain, but rather do what you can, when you can. Divide your exercise into shorter, more frequent chunks of time if that helps, or try exercising in water to reduce joint or muscle discomfort.

Getting started exercising when you’re anxious or depressed

Many of us find it hard enough to motivate ourselves to exercise at the best of times. When we feel depressed, anxious, stressed or have other mental or emotional problems, it can seem doubly difficult. This is especially true of depression and anxiety, which can leave you feeling trapped in a catch-22 situation. You know exercise will make you feel better, but depression has robbed you of the energy and motivation you need to work out, or your social anxiety means you can’t bear the thought of being seen at an exercise class or running through the park. So, what can you do?

It’s okay to start small. In fact, it’s smart.

When you’re under the cloud of an emotional disorder and haven’t exercised for a long time, setting extravagant goals like completing a marathon or working out for an hour every morning will only leave you more despondent if you fall short. Better to set achievable goals and build up from there.

Schedule your workout at the time of day when your energy is highest

That may be first thing in the morning before work or school, at lunchtime before the mid-afternoon lull hits, or for longer sessions over the weekend. If depression or anxiety has you feeling tired and unmotivated all day long, try dancing to some music or simply going for a walk. Even a short, 15-minute walk can help clear your mind, improve your mood, and boost your energy level. As you move and start to feel a little better, you’ll experience a greater sense of control over your well-being. You may even feel energized enough to exercise more vigorously—by walking further, breaking into a run, or adding a bike ride, for example.

Other tips for staying motivated when you’re also struggling with mental health

Focus on activities you enjoy. Any activity that gets you moving counts. That could include throwing a Frisbee with a dog or friend, walking laps of a mall window shopping, or cycling to the grocery store. If you’ve never exercised before or don’t know what you might enjoy, try a few different things. Activities such as gardening or tackling a home improvement project can be great ways to start moving more when you have a mood disorder—as well as helping you become more active, they can also leave you with a sense of purpose and accomplishment.

Be comfortable. Whatever time of day you decide to exercise, wear clothing that’s comfortable and choose a setting that you find calming or energizing. That may be a quiet corner of your home, a scenic path, or your favorite city park.

Reward yourself. Part of the reward of completing an activity is how much better you’ll feel afterwards, but it always helps your motivation to promise yourself an extra treat for exercising. Reward yourself with a hot bubble bath after a workout, a delicious smoothie, or with an extra episode of your favorite TV show.

Make exercise a social activity. Exercising with a friend or loved one, or even your kids, will not only make exercising more fun and enjoyable, it can also help motivate you to stick to a workout routine. You’ll also feel better than if you were exercising alone. In fact, when you’re suffering from a mood disorder such as depression, the companionship can be just as important as the exercise.

Easy ways to move more that don’t involve the gym

Don’t have 30 minutes to dedicate to yoga or a bike ride? Don’t worry. Think about physical activity as a lifestyle rather than just a single task to check off. Look at your daily routine and consider ways to sneak in activity here, there, and everywhere. Need ideas? We’ve got them.

In and around your home. Clean the house, wash the car, tend to the yard and garden, mow the lawn with a push mower, sweep the sidewalk or patio with a broom.

At work and on the go. Bike or walk to an appointment rather than drive, banish all elevators and get to know every staircase possible, briskly walk to the bus stop then get off one stop early, park at the back of the lot and walk into the store or office, take a vigorous walk during your coffee break.

With the family. Jog around the soccer field during your kid’s practice, make a neighborhood bike ride part of your weekend routine, play tag with your children in the yard, go canoeing at a lake, walk the dog in a new place.

Just for fun. Pick fruit at an orchard, boogie to music, go to the beach or take a hike, gently stretch while watching television, organize an office bowling team, take a class in martial arts, dance, or yoga.

Make exercise a fun part of your everyday life

You don’t have to spend hours in a gym or force yourself into long, monotonous workouts to experience the many benefits of exercise. These tips can help you find activities you enjoy and start to feel better, look better, and get more out of life.

My Doctor Prescribed Daily HIIT Exercises for My Depression. Here’s What Happened.

Two winters ago, while pregnant with my third child, I was formally diagnosed with depression.

I had struggled with feeling deep sadness and apathy in the past, especially during a period of postpartum depression after the births of my first two children.

But this was the first time my symptoms were bad enough that I knew I had to see a doctor.

I took a pretty traditional approach to my treatment. I was prescribed an antidepressant and started therapy.

Even though I moved forward with treatment, I also assumed that I just needed to get through my pregnancy and my son’s first few months of life, and then I would be feeling like myself again.

So far, that hasn’t been the case.

My son is nearly a year and a half old, and although I’ve felt like I “bounce back” during the warm summer months, the winter months have been especially hard.

I’ve found myself battling those familiar feelings of hopelessness and lack of motivation.

It’s a struggle to stay positive.

This winter, I wanted to take a more proactive approach to managing my mental health.

When I was first diagnosed with depression, my doctor recommended that I use short bursts of exercise to boost my mood whenever I’m feeling down.

As soon as I felt the symptoms creeping up, I was ready to take matters into my own hands.

Exercise has mental health benefits

I decided to apply my doctor’s advice as a mood-boosting workout once a day.

“When you get the blood flowing and moving around, it releases endorphins,” Stephen Graef, PhD, a sports psychologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, told Healthline.

“Endorphins are released as a way to kind of combat the fatigue and the pain that we experience through physical movement such as exercise,” Graef explained. “From a mental health perspective, that is also going to give us those benefits of those same chemicals because they have that feel good, opiate-type of feeling to them.”

Graef pointed out that exercise will likely result in short-term benefits right from the start, describing it as a kind of exercise high.

He also shared that exercising consistently over time will bring even more benefits that help mood, like reduced stress.

As a working mom, I wanted to make achieving my goal of exercising once a day — and enjoying these benefits — as easy as possible. That meant removing time barriers.

I developed a simple seven-minute high-intensity interval training (HIIT) workout for my experiment. It didn’t require equipment or much space.

My seven-minute HIIT workout:

Do as many reps of each exercise for 30 seconds, then rest for 10 seconds. Do the full set two times:

  • jumping jacks
  • wall sit
  • pushups
  • crunches
  • step-ups
  • squats
  • lunges

Share on PinterestMy post-workout glow. Week one, I’m feeling excited to start working out daily. But the commitment and actual workouts are harder than I expected.

Week 1: Getting started with morning workouts

During the first week of my experiment, I felt pretty excited to stick with my commitment.

I had been tracking my moods off and on and wanted to see if they would improve when I started exercising.

Specifically, I wanted to see if my afternoons would feel easier, because that’s typically when my mood drops.

I was looking forward to a surge of serotonin, plus the confidence that would come with crushing each workout.

In reality, the exercises were hard.

There were also other unexpected issues.

I was doing my seven-minute HIIT routine first thing in the morning.

Most days, this meant I was taking breaks to get one kid something as they got ready for their day, or my littlest was underfoot.

Although I did notice my mood improve right after exercise, I didn’t feel like it impacted my afternoons.

I was still dealing with a lot of frustration and discouragement once the exercise high wore off.

By the end of the week, I realized mornings might not be the best time for uninterrupted workouts and decided to try exercising in the afternoon the following week.

Share on PinterestGetting ready to start my workout, even as my youngest child holds onto me.

Week 2: Switching things up

When the second week rolled around, I decided to move my workouts to the afternoon.

When 3:00 p.m. hits, I usually want to crawl into bed.

Instead, I set an alarm for 3:00 p.m. and did my seven-minute workout while my kids had their post-nap snack.

Overall, the time change was a good move. But it still wasn’t easy to complete each workout.

I was struggling with the motivation to do HIIT most days.

However, once I finally talked myself into it, I noticed a boost in my mood. I wasn’t bouncing off the walls after each workout, but I was feeling more positive about the rest of the day.

Unfortunately, as the end of the week drew near, I felt like I was coming down with something.

My middle child had been diagnosed with the flu on Wednesday of that week, and by Friday I was barely getting out of bed myself. Physically, I felt awful.

Share on PinterestTracking my moods as I implemented my HIIT routine helped me figure out if exercise was helping, as well as what time of day I most needed a boost.

Week 3: Veering off course

I really wanted to bounce back quickly from the flu, and to get back to my workouts so I could stick with my plan.

Instead, I found myself dealing with nasty chest congestion that made it difficult to climb my stairs, much less engage in an intense workout.

One thing I noticed this week was how hard it was for me to manage my mood.

Several days into the flu, I was feeling really negative.

I was frustrated with life in general, and not being able to do the things that helped me feel better (like exercising and leaving the house) only made matters worse.

By the end of the week, I was really anxious to pick up my workouts again.

Share on PinterestMoving my workout to the gym was key to getting out of my post-flu funk.

Week 4: Getting back on track

After nearly 10 days of being sick, I finally started to feel well enough to get back to my HIIT routine. It was less of a triumphant return than a slow and steady effort.

I was feeling emotionally and physically worn out from being sick and taking care of three sick kids.

The workouts weren’t making me feel more positive, so I took my workouts to the gym.

I added some laps around the track in addition to the seven-minute HIIT workout.

I’m not sure if it was the workouts, the change in environment, or the joy of not being sick anymore, but I felt like my mood picked up toward the end of the week.

It wasn’t always easy to muster up the motivation to get my three kids to the gym, but I was always glad I did once we got there.

Share on PinterestHIIT allowed me to take action to fight off my depression.

HIIT moving forward

By the end of a month of doing high-intensity workouts, albeit inconsistently, I’m certain it was an important addition to my mental health treatment.

But it isn’t a magic fix for my seasonal depression.

The biggest limitation of using exercise as a treatment for depression is that it requires a lot of motivation, which is something that many depressed individuals — myself included — find hard to come by.

Setting my alarm helped. I also felt accountable because I had committed to writing about the experiment.

When it comes to the benefits, I feel like the most powerful impact is the sense of control over my health that exercising gives me.

While my afternoons have been really hard since the weather changed, I now have a say in how my mood fluctuates, to an extent.

I don’t feel like my depression has completely melted away after my afternoon workout, but I also don’t feel like hiding in bed for the rest of the day.

Even though it’s seven tough, sweaty minutes, knowing I can improve my mental health in such a short amount of time is motivation enough to make exercise part of my weekly, if not daily, routine.

When you’ve got depression, getting out of bed can feel hard enough. But conversely, exercise is actually an incredibly useful tool to help combat some of the symptoms.

“When you exercise you release ‘feel good’ hormones called endorphins which help reduce negative feelings and improve your mood,” explains Hayley Jarvis, Head of Physical Activity at mental health charity Mind.

As well as that, Hayley points out that exercise can help to break up racing thoughts that often compound depression. “As the body tires so does the mind, leaving you calmer and better able to think clearly. Simply taking time out to exercise can also give people the space to think things over and help clear the mind,” she explains.

Exercise is such an important part of easing the symptoms of depression, Mind has partnered with gym chain Anytime Fitness to launch National Workouts & Wellbeing Week, a week-long celebration of physical and mental health in which people can to claim a free, seven-day pass at any of Anytime Fitness’ gyms.

But the term ‘exercise’ is a pretty sweeping one, so which kinds of physical activity are going to be most effective in helping you to beat depression? Experts from Mind and Anytime Fitness help you work out where to start:

1.Walking outside

A common misconception is that exercise has to be ‘hard’ to be effective. But sometimes, quite the opposite is true. Hard exercise can trigger the release of the stress hormone cortisol, which is often present in high levels in people who suffer with depression. For that reason, Marvin Burton, Head of Fitness at Anytime Fitness UK, prefers to recommend more passive forms of exercise.

“A walk in the great outdoors can be a fantastic way to combat depression,” Marvin tells Cosmopolitan.com/uk. “We’ve all heard the expression of going outside to ‘clear your head’, but it’s so true. Ultimately, if you have a clearer mind, you’re more likely to achieve greater changes to your physical and mental health.”

Mind’s Hayley Jarvis agrees, pointing out that scientific research suggests outdoor exercise can be as effective as antidepressants in treating mild to moderate depression. “The colours, sounds and smells we find outdoors stimulate our senses, and being in regular social contact with people can help boost your self-esteem and reduce loneliness,” she explains.

Getty Images

2. Running

Running is the kind of exercise that enables you to notice when your fitness levels progress, which is the kind of reward Hayley suggests will help someone with depression. “Running is a hugely rewarding exercise where you can easily track progress and improvement,” she says. “It’s important to find a type of activity that you love and stick to it.”

Marvin adds that running can “provide a great escape from your everyday routine and allows you to focus, strive and achieve a personal goal or objective.” Plus, he reminds us that running is one of the most accessible forms of exercise, requiring just a pair of trainers and not much else.

3. Group exercise

In the midst of a depressive episode, it can be easy to want to shut yourself away, becoming isolated from the company of others. But this isn’t advisable, and exercising in a group might be a good way to avoid it. “As well as the camaraderie, having the opportunity to speak to people and be social as you work out can deliver huge benefits,” says Marvin.

“A group activity might be best for you if you value your boost of a strong social element,” adds Hayley, who also points out that “you’re much more likely to keep doing it if it’s fun and you enjoy the company of those around you.”

Getty Images

To find out more about National Workouts & Wellbeing Week, and to claim your free seven day pass, find out more information here.

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Catriona Harvey-Jenner Digital Features Editor Cat is Cosmopolitan UK’s features editor covering women’s issues, health and current affairs.

Exercise is an all-natural treatment to fight depression

Photo: Thinkstock

Exercise is as effective as drugs in some cases.

Updated: April 30, 2018Published: August, 2013

One in 10 adults in the United States struggles with depression, and antidepressant medications are a common way to treat the condition. However, pills aren’t the only solution. Research shows that exercise is also an effective treatment. “For some people it works as well as antidepressants, although exercise alone isn’t enough for someone with severe depression,” says Dr. -Michael Craig Miller, assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

The exercise effect

Exercising starts a biological cascade of events that results in many health benefits, such as protecting against heart disease and diabetes, improving sleep, and lowering blood pressure. High-intensity exercise releases the body’s feel-good chemicals called endorphins, resulting in the “runner’s high” that joggers report. But for most of us, the real value is in low-intensity exercise sustained over time. That kind of activity spurs the release of proteins called neurotrophic or growth factors, which cause nerve cells to grow and make new connections. The improvement in brain function makes you feel better. “In people who are depressed, neuroscientists have noticed that the hippocampus in the brain—the region that helps regulate mood—is smaller. Exercise supports nerve cell growth in the hippocampus, improving nerve cell connections, which helps relieve depression,” explains Dr. Miller.

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Depression: Exercise may reduce symptoms but not in women

Many experts consider exercise to be an effective treatment for depression. However, new research casts doubt on this theory by showing that not everyone may benefit.

Share on PinterestA new study looks at whether exercise can relieve depressive symptoms in men and women equally.

Depression is the number one cause of disability across the globe, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

If the condition is severe and long-lasting, it can have a hugely detrimental effect on every part of a person’s life.

Effective treatment does exist, but research has shown that more than one in two people with depression do not receive it.

Possible reasons for this include misdiagnosis, the perceived stigma around mental health, and a lack of access to resources.

Doctors often prescribe antidepressant medication, but experts believe that a simpler and more readily available treatment can help. Exercise can be just as effective as antidepressants, note Harvard Medical School, although they acknowledge that medication may also be necessary in severe cases.

However, a new study by researchers at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor has found that the effect of exercise on depression differs for men and women. The scientists studied the exercise and sleep patterns of more than 1,100 people studying at Beijing University in China.

Experts already know that disturbed sleep is a feature of depression and that exercise is a potential treatment for this mental health condition. In the new study, the researchers asked the participants to complete three questionnaires, which asked them about their sleep, exercise, and depressive symptoms.

Man versus woman

The researchers expected to find a link between exercise and depression, but this connection only revealed itself in male participants. Moderate or vigorous exercise had a positive effect on men who exhibited symptoms of depression.

Women with depressive symptoms, on the other hand, did not benefit from any level of exercise.

Principal investigator Weiyun Chen believes that the fact that few of the women in the study participated in high-intensity exercise may explain this finding. However, this contradicts previous research.

Earlier studies pegged exercise of low-to-moderate intensity as a potential long-term treatment for depression. Vigorous physical activity releases endorphins, but regular levels of exercise can result in the growth of nerve cells.

“In people who are depressed, neuroscientists have noticed that the hippocampus in the brain — the region that helps regulate mood — is smaller,” Dr. Michael Craig Miller, assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, explained in 2013. “Exercise supports nerve cell growth in the hippocampus, improving nerve cell connections, which helps relieve depression.”

Casting doubt on exercise

The latest study, which the researchers published in the Journal of American College Health, suggests that neither low- nor high-intensity exercise benefits women with depression.

This finding could be vital because depression is more prevalent in women than in men. In the study, 43% of female participants reported depressive symptoms compared with 37% of male participants.

Both sexes did exhibit some similarities. For example, poor sleep correlated with the level of depression in both men and women.

The study authors were surprised to find that the majority of the participants did not report feeling depressed. Close to one in seven college students receive a diagnosis of depression, partly because their environment tends to lead to stress and a lack of sleep.

Making research more equal

The fact that more women report depression could help explain the relationship between depression, exercise, and sleep. People with more severe symptoms of depression may be less motivated to exercise and more likely to experience disturbed sleep. As the study showed, these individuals were more likely to be female.

Researchers must do much more work to strengthen these findings. Future studies will need to include people from numerous locations around the world to see whether the results are applicable globally. They will also need to recruit and evaluate people from different age ranges.

Gender differences also mean that research into depression may need to prioritize women, which some people have accused it of failing to do in the past.

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