Although the role of exercise in alleviating symptoms of depression has been proposed for centuries, researchers have accumulated evidence within the past several decades supporting the health benefits of exercise. Even for individuals who do not have clinical levels of depressive symptoms, consistent evidence shows a positive effect on mood with both acute bouts of exercise and longer-term exercise training. Exercisers often report feeling more energy, greater self-esteem, and less stress. However, people with depression tend to be less active and to have high amounts of sedentary time, and few achieve adequate levels of physical activity.
Physical Activity and Depression
Physical activity such as walking has been found to be associated with a lower risk of developing depression. People who are more active report fewer depressive symptoms and reduced incidence of physician-diagnosed depression. However, this type of research examines relationships, showing that higher levels of activity are associated with lower risk of depression. The direction of the relationship—does physical activity reduce depression or does depression result in less activity?—cannot be determined by associations alone. To answer this question, clinical research studies in which exercise is prescribed and risk of depression is then determined provide better insights on how physical activity can be used as an antidepressant therapy. Also Read: How to stay motivated to workout?
Dose of Exercise for Mental Health
Overall, clinical research studies that use exercise as a treatment for depression show a clinically meaningful positive effect of exercise as an antidepressant therapy. Most of the research has used aerobic-type activities such as walking, jogging, or cycling, but there is evidence that resistance training and even yoga might be helpful. Several studies have reported that exercise alone can reduce depression symptoms comparably to traditional pharmacotherapy or psychotherapy in individuals with mild to moderate major depressive disorder. However, only a few studies have examined the appropriate “dose” of exercise to achieve a reduction in symptoms. Available evidence suggests that the dose of exercise recommended for general health benefits, as described throughout this book, may also be effective to reduce depression symptoms. Achieving full relief of symptoms can be a challenge in the treatment of depression, and adding exercise to other treatments may be effective. Given the difficulty in obtaining full remission of depressive symptoms and the likelihood of future episodes, the use of exercise in combination with traditional therapies is promising but requires further study. Also Read: Should I hire a Personal Trainer or Fitness expert?
Benefits of Exercise For Depression
Supporting the inclusion of exercise, evidence suggests that exercise may directly improve particular symptoms of depression, specifically sleep, fatigue, and cognitive function. Sleep disturbances are a key feature of depression and can negatively affect health and daily functioning. Some evidence indicates that exercise may increase sleep time and sleep quality, and single bouts of exercise have been shown to enhance feelings of energy and reduce fatigue. Exercise training may be helpful in reducing symptoms of fatigue for both healthy adults and those with health conditions. Recent evidence also suggests that, when added to an antidepressant, various levels of exercise improve sleep quality and reduce awakening in the middle of the night and early morning. These benefits are in addition to the effects of exercise on the
overall symptoms of depression. The following are other benefits:
- Low cost
- Fitness and health benefits
- Few negative side effects
- Alter-ability of the routine to meet needs and goals
- Greater individual control
Cognitive function, such as learning, remembering, and using information, is frequently disrupted in depression and can create significant and persistent difficulties in daily functioning. Similar to the observations of exercise effects on sleep, various levels of exercise have been shown to directly improve cognitive functions, independent of changes in overall depressive symptoms. Higher levels of exercise have been associated with additional benefits, particularly with respect to spatial working memory, or tasks that measure how one works with visual and spatial information. However, there are few studies in this area, so more research is needed.
How Exercise May Affect Mental Health?
The exact mechanisms by which physical activity improves mental health are largely unknown. But this is also the case for psychotherapy and medications. It is likely that antidepressant therapies work due to a combination of effects, including changes in thoughts, feelings, and brain pathways. There may also be a type of placebo or expectancy effect, with treatments working, in part, because patients believe that they will help. For example, if you are confident that exercise will lower depression, you may be more likely to see that outcome when engaging in exercise. Physical activity may also provide a distraction from worries or symptoms and reduce stress by offering a “time-out” from daily concerns, which can be very important in the management of depression and anxiety. Individuals who are successful in becoming more physically active commonly report improved self-confidence and enhanced self-esteem, and this can also enhance feelings of control. In a study of older adults, increases in self-esteem predicted decreases in depression symptoms after treatment with physical activity. Exercise may also provide additional opportunities for social support and interaction, which can be helpful for those suffering from depression.
Depression is a very common disorder that can occur at any time throughout the lifespan, and it significantly affects daily functioning in many areas. A variety of treatments are available, including medication and psychotherapy, and communication with a health care provider is important to monitor depressive symptoms and other concurrent health conditions. Exercise can also be an effective intervention for depression, both as a stand alone treatment and when added to other therapy. Using behavioral strategies can help promote adherence to exercise and should be incorporated as a part of physical activity adoption and maintenance.