Exercise and depression

One of the most prevalent mental illnesses is depression. People often feel a bit ‘down’ or upset after receiving bad news or if they have had a particularly difficult day but for some people these feelings are more intense and last for longer than ‘normal’. When this happens it might mean that an individual has crossed an invisible threshold and can be diagnosed as ‘depressed’, especially if they are also experiencing symptoms such as feeling worthless and unable to concentrate. As with other mental illnesses there are a number of different types of depressive disorder. These range from Major Depressive Disorder (which is the type most people think of when they refer to ‘depression’), to Seasonal Affective Disorder to Post-Natal Depression.

The good news is that there are lots of different treatments for depression ranging from talking therapies to medication. Exercise is often suggested as well as it has be shown to have a positive impact on mental health. And conveniently, exercise doesn’t have the waiting lists that talking therapies can have, or the negative side effects of some medications, making it an ideal starting place for reducing any negative feelings you might be experiencing. Exercise can help through a variety of mechanisms including changes in neurotransmitter levels in the brain and changing the way the body responds to stress at a biological level. We won’t go into the detail about the mechanisms behind this effect here, but if you want to learn more about this you can read this blog post.

This blog post is going to focus on the link between exercise can help depression, in particular Major Depressive Disorder, and how you can apply this to your own life.

Does exercise help to protect against depression?

In short – yes, it does. It appears that being active regularly has some sort of protective effect against developing depression. That is, research has suggested that for people who record being physically active at a certain time, when assessed again in the future they are less likely to have depression than those people who didn’t record being active the first time they were assessed.

While there are endless variables that interact to effect whether or not someone develops depression, such as major life events, your childhood and your socio-economic status, meaning that exercise won’t protect everyone from developing depression, this is promising news. It means that if you aren’t currently experiencing depressive symptoms by exercising you could potentially prevent them from developing. So the exercise you already do to keep you feeling ‘good’ in the short term could well be having a more long term impact on your mental health, a benefit which shouldn’t be understated.

Can exercise be used as a treatment for depression?

Just like exercise can be used as a preventive measure against depression, it can also be used as a treatment for depression. In fact, exercise may well be one of the first things your GP would suggest if you went to them experiencing symptoms of mild depression.

A range of research studies have shown that exercise can help to reduce symptoms of depression. Some of this research has suggested that exercise has a similar impact on depression as talking therapies, such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). As mentioned above, this is brilliant news as talking therapies such as CBT often have long waiting lists and so it can take months to get an appointment, leaving an individual somewhat stranded in the mean time. But with exercise there are no waiting lists, you can just start exercising whenever you want. So while you may not want to use exercise as a replacement for talking therapies because it may help you to talk through your emotions with a qualified counsellor, it can be used as a mechanism to manage your emotions while you wait for an appointment.

Of course, each individual is unique and so if you are experiencing depressive symptoms you might not find exercise helpful for managing these emotions. But exercise is very very unlikely to make you feel worse and so just giving it a go is important.

How much exercise do I need to be doing to help?

As depression can be characterised by a lack of motivation and feel tired it can understandably be hard to exercise, after all motivation and energy are required to exercise! But luckily the NHS suggest that you aim to do just 21 minutes of exercise a day (even a brisk walk counts), which should be manageable for most people. Alternatively, NICE recommend that if you have mild to moderate exercise you should be doing 3 exercise sessions a week, each of around 45 minutes to an hour. So the general message here is that exercising little and often is what matters, rather than doing one really long exercise session a week.

Even if it seems hard to start exercising you are likely to find that once you have got started it is easier to carry on. So even if the first hurdle of getting changed into exercise clothes and getting started seems impossible, give it a go and you will most likely find yourself feeling better before long. Not only that but you should also feel a sense of achievement at doing something positive to help your mental health.

Crucially, you should do a form of exercise you enjoy. There is no point in exercising to improve your mood if you are doing a type of exercise you hate, especially as depression can be characterised by a lack of enjoyment in many activities. Instead pick something you enjoy (or think you have the potential to enjoy) and will look forward to doing so you will be more likely to do it and experience the benefits it brings.

For more help getting started with exercise, these blogs posts on goal setting and motivation may be helpful to get you going…

Of course, if you are struggling with depression, or any other aspect of your mental health, it is important to talk to a health care practictioner for guidance and support.

Happy exercising 🙂

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