Health & Nutrition

The Exercise Effect: Can Exercise Help Treat Depression?

depression symptoms

This post was developed via a partnership with BetterHelp.

There aren’t many people in this world who have not been affected by depression in some way. Most of us have either experienced it personally, or know someone who has. In fact, the World Health Organization estimates that roughly 5% of the entire world’s adult population suffers from depression.

It’s believed that one in six people (16%) will experience a depressive episode at least once in their lifetime. Depression is certainly a very real mental health issue in our society today. And while the most common method of treating depression has been with psychotherapy and medication, a lot of promising science is now backing up an alternative treatment for depression: exercise.

Are you worried this sounds too good to be true? Have no fear – many scientific studies over the past couple decades have backed up this conclusion. It seems as though regular physical exercise can make a significant difference for our mental health when we’re depressed.

Such a difference, it seems, that exercise might actually be the new antidepressant! Let’s explore the exercise effect, how it benefits our minds and bodies, and how it might be able to treat depression.

What Is Depression?

Depression, or major depressive disorder, is a common but fairly serious mood disorder. It causes negative, severe feelings of sadness that affect how you feel, the way you think, and how you behave.

Depression usually causes you to lose interest in the things you once loved, and to sleep excessively or not enough. It often affects interest in socializing and motivation. The symptoms of depression must be present for at least two weeks for it to be diagnosed.

If you receive a depression diagnosis, it can feel quite scary. There are a lot of unknowns, like what you should do next, what can help you through this, and who you should lean on for support.

how to treat depression without pills

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In conjunction with exercise and healthy habits, therapy can be extremely beneficial in helping you understand what you’re feeling, and allow you to feel supported by a professional. Consider looking for a licensed therapist near you or online. BetterHelp also has some great articles in order to help guide you through your depression, with
resources, tips, and more.

Symptoms of Depression

Below are the most common symptoms of depression. It’s important to note that not all symptoms have to be present for it to be considered depression.

  • Feeling sad or having a depressed mood
  • Difficulty sleeping, or sleeping in excess
  • Feeling worthless, struggling with low self-esteem
  • Changes in appetite – overeating or undereating, resulting in weight loss or weight gain
  • Difficulty focusing or concentrating on the task at hand
  • Thoughts of suicide
  • Slowed movements or speech; erratically moving around, jittering, pacing
  • Fatigued, low on energy

The Exercise Effect: Benefits of Physical Activity

Let’s talk about the exercise effect: what does it mean? How can it actually help treat the symptoms of depression? Let’s dive in.

The exercise effect encompasses all the benefits that physical activity has on our minds and bodies. We often consider the main benefit of exercise to be getting in good physical shape. But exercise transforms more than just our bodies; it’s like the gift that keeps on giving.

Regular physical activity not only makes our muscles stronger and our bodies look good, but it also offers a plethora of mental, social, and chemical benefits that can transform our entire well-being. And therein lies the key to understanding how exercise can serve as a natural antidepressant. Read on to learn about some of the physical and mental effects of exercise.

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Physical Benefits of Exercise

  • Reduces our blood pressure, lowering the risk of heart disease.
  • Helps us maintain healthy blood sugar levels, lowering the risk of developing diabetes.
  • Helps us maintain a healthy weight and body fat percentage, lowering the risk of obesity, cardiovascular disease, stroke, etc.
  • Builds our muscles and protects our bones, slowing the loss of bone density and lowering the risk of osteoporosis and joint degradation.
  • Increases our flexibility, mobility, and balance, lowering the risk of bad falls and injuries associated with aging.
  • Alleviates pain in the joints caused by rheumatism.
Ways Exercise Can Treat Depression

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Mental benefits

  • Releases endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin into the bloodstream. These “feel-good” chemicals are natural mood-boosters and painkillers that offer increased energy and happy feelings.
  • Reduces chronic stress and mental overwhelm. When you focus on the movement at hand, your racing thoughts will naturally subside. Your muscles will relax and untense, and the anti-inflammatory benefits of exercise will help internal stress abate.
  • Improves quality of sleep. Exercise releases tension in your body, eases pain, relaxes anxious thoughts, and allows your body to achieve a better-regulated sleep cycle.
  • Helps manage depression and anxiety. By releasing mood-boosting chemicals, easing stress, and improving self-esteem, exercise can actually treat symptoms of depression.

5 Health and Wellness Myths that people should really know about

Nowadays, people often believe a lot of stories and myths when it comes to health. The sad truth is that most big food and wellness product manufacturers often jump on these claims to make a profit.

Ways Exercise Can Treat Depression

Now that you’re clear on the holistic picture of how exercise benefits our lives, let’s explore how it might be as effective in treating depression as psychotherapy or medication. Below are the primary depression-treating benefits of exercise.

Enhances Our Mood and Boosts Self-Esteem

When we exercise, our endocrine system releases a special group of “feel-good” chemicals that enter the bloodstream and make their way into our brains. These chemicals are endorphins, serotonin, dopamine, and brain-derived neurotrophic factors.

This group of chemicals is a mood-boosting elixir that makes us feel happier, calmer, and all-around content. In addition, when we exercise, stress hormones like cortisol are lowered. All of this together alleviates depressed moods and any struggle with low self-esteem that often characterize clinical depression.

depression symptoms

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What’s more, dedicating ourselves to getting in shape and watching as our bodies transform and get stronger can improve our self-image. We can develop a sense of discipline and purpose that will combat feelings of hopelessness, unworthiness, shame, and apathy.

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Reduces Anxiety

Depression is often accompanied by anxiety or persistent anxious feelings. Many people who struggle with anxiety have nervous system responses that are especially heightened to outside stimuli. Their hypersensitive fight-or-flight responses cause challenging physical reactions to things around them, like shaking, sweating, and a rapid heartbeat.

But regular intense exercise can act almost as a form of exposure therapy for anxiety. When exercising, your body will mimic those exact fight-or-flight responses: perspiration, elevated heart rate, and intense focus. The more you do it, the more you will adapt to the physiological symptoms of anxiety. So that your hypersensitivity to things will dull over time.

Helps Beat Fatigue and Low Energy

Something that many people with depression struggle with is the extreme fatigue and lack of energy that interferes with daily living. The more depressed you feel, the more you may feel sluggish, unmotivated, and exhausted.

You may struggle to get out of bed, take a shower, and make it into work. You might sleep for 13 hours a day, or stay up until 3am and nap all afternoon. This pattern of fatigue and poor sleep can be a major hindrance in successfully following through on the things we need to accomplish.

While it may feel like an insurmountable challenge to put on workout clothes and leave your home when you’re at your most fatigued, these painful baby steps can change your life in not much time. The more you exercise, the more you will find your energy returning to your body.

It might feel unpleasant the first few times you go as you adjust to the chemical changes taking place in your body. But once you get in the rhythm of it, your fatigue will abate and you will enjoy elevated moods after your workouts. Stick with it, even if you start with only 5 minutes of exercise a couple times a week!

Improves Quality of Sleep

Less fatigue and more energy aren’t the only things regular exercise will provide. Physical activity reduces stress, lowers inflammation in the body, and releases tension in our muscles. Our energy during the day will increase, lessening the desire to sleep mid-day.

Exercising for Better Sleep

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All of these effects combined will allow our sleep patterns to regulate again. Exercise promotes a healthy circadian rhythm and deep sleep, the important sleep stage when physical restoration and increased brain health happen. So try to exercise at least 3-4 times a week, and watch as you feel more well-rested in the morning and less exhausted mid-day.

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Does The Type of Exercise Matter?

Of all the studies conducted on the antidepressant effects of exercise, there are no clear indications that any one type of exercise is more effective than another. This means that aerobic exercise, strength training, resistance training, and others all have equally beneficial effects in treating depression.

What’s more, studies show there seems to be a minimal difference between the efficacy of exercise versus psychotherapy and medication in treating depression. In other words, exercise may actually prove equally as beneficial in pulling people out of their depression as therapy and medication.

Bottom line: if you want to incorporate exercise into your life to help you treat your depression, you don’t have to overthink what type of exercise to do. If possible, just make sure the physical activity you do get is moderate or high intensity.

In the end, what matters most is that you’ll be able to enjoy it and stick with it for a lifetime! Here are some exercise ideas to inspire you:

  • Running, jogging, or walking
  • Hiking
  • Biking
  • Swimming
  • Weight lifting
  • Cardio machines (i.e., ellipticals, rowing machines, stair steppers)
  • Kayaking or rowing
  • HIIT training
  • Dancing
  • Rock climbing
  • Sports like basketball, soccer, and tennis

In Closing

The number of benefits that come from a regular exercise routine is truly mind-blowing. Science shows us that not only is physical activity useful for improving the health of our bodies, but the health of our minds and general well-being.

The increasing evidence that exercise can actually treat depression is really exciting. It offers an alternative for those who don’t want to rely on medications to start feeling better.

It doesn’t matter what type of exercise you choose, as long as it gets your heart pumping, muscles working, and blood flowing.

Make sure to start small if you’re not accustomed to physical activity. Work out for 5-10 minutes a couple times a week, and work up from there.

You will be amazed as you discover you are sleeping better, feeling more energetic, and less sad and stressed. Exercise truly may be the new antidepressant.

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