Exercise does more than make our bodies strong and keep us physically fit. Lots of research has been done connecting mental health and exercise. Just five minutes of moderate exercise provides a mood enhancing effect. Even better than that, studies are showing that long term depression is alleviated with physical activity. In general, inactive people are more depressed than active people.
Here are some research findings that support the notion that exercise decreases depression:
- Researchers at Duke University discovered that exercise is as effective for alleviating major depression as anti-depressant medications. However, it is important to maintain activity; those who are involved in an exercise program and stop are more depressed than those who continue with exercise.
- Those with a history of depression, who engage in regular exercise, are less likely to suffer another bout of depression compared to those who are inactive.
- UT Southwestern’s research on depression indicates that women who have a family history of mental illness experience a greater reduction in depressive symptoms with moderate exercise (as opposed to more intense exercise). Men, on the other hand, and women with no family mental health history, do even better with even more exercise.
- Studies done at Indiana University found that subjects with diabetes who engaged in a 12 week exercise program not only noticed a decrease in depression, their A1C improved as well. This is important because people with diabetes have a greater chance of developing depression than those without diabetes. Their depression is also more resistant to treatment. Exercise changes that.
There are several theories to explain why exercise is so important for decreasing depression. Serotonin, the neurotransmitter associated with feelings of well-being, increases with exercise, just as it does with SSRI anti-depressant medications (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors). Another theory suggests that exercise decreases depression by improving sleep. Other research suggests exercise results in neuron growth, which may result in less depression. Yet another study indicates our bodies are less susceptible to stress (and therefore we are less likely to become anxious or depressed) if we are physically active. We also know exercise increases endorphins which improve mood.
There is a link between a relaxed state, exercise and resistance to depression. Relaxed states are associated with increased body temperature. Exercise certainly causes our body temperature to increase. Also our heart pumps more when we are active, which in turn increases blood flow and oxygenates the brain. This improves the brains ability to utilize feel good neurotransmitters.
Finally, psychological factors play a role. Exercise is associated with a sense of accomplishment and improved confidence.
How can you apply this in your life? First, you should not begin an exercise program without consulting your physician. When you do begin an exercise regimen, don’t overdo it. If you cannot talk, slow down. Improvement in mood was delayed 30 minutes in subjects who exercised so hard they couldn’t talk. The benefit from exercise will be noticed nearly immediately in improved mood.
I recommend finding activities that are enjoyable, that way you will be more likely to stick with it. I do various physical activities and don’t even think of them as exercise; racquet ball, basketball, canoeing, swimming, zumba, hiking, bicycling, and of course yoga are fun activities. What activities do you enjoy? Look forward to seeing you on a hiking trail or in a yoga class.