Can exercise really improve my mood?
Yes. Just taking a brisk walk three times a week may help you recover faster from depression, reduce its severity, and even ward off the blues in the first place. Hundreds of studies have found that exercise can help relieve physical and emotional symptoms in clinically depressed people. Others have found that people who work out regularly, whether they’re young or old, tend to have better self-esteem and fewer physical and mental health problems.
In one study, college students who did aerobic exercise for five weeks recovered faster and more fully from stressful life events than those who practiced relaxation techniques. In fact, a Duke University Medical Center study of 156 clinically depressed patients found exercise to be more effective at easing depression over the long term than the anti-depressant medication Zoloft. In this clinical trial, patients in the exercise group took three supervised classes per week in which they used a treadmill or stationary bicycle at 70 to 85 percent of their maximum heart rate for 30 minutes, according to a report published in Psychosomatic Medicine.
How does exercise help relieve depression?
Just focusing your mind and body on a rhythmic activity can help relieve anxiety. Exercise is a great stress-buster, too, not only because it relieves muscle tension but also because it gets your heart rate up. The combination makes you more relaxed and alert and, therefore, better able to deal with your problems. Plus, it feels a lot better to take out your frustrations on the StairMaster than on your spouse or coworkers.
If depression has disrupted your sleep or appetite, burning a few extra calories helps get your body back in sync and boosts your energy level if you’re dragging. It may take your mind off your problems, too. Of course, getting stronger and staying in shape makes you feel better about yourself by enhancing your sense of competence and control over your life. And knowing that you can indulge in that ice cream sundae occasionally without worrying about how it will look on your hips is nice, too.
Some current research suggests exercise can actually change your brain chemistry. One recent study found that a good workout can boost your level of serotonin, a brain chemical that is linked to mood. Intense exercise can also stimulate the production of endorphins, natural painkillers that can sometimes make you feel euphoric. A Yale University study found that exercise increases neurogenesis–the growth of neuronal brain cells–and stymies the effects of aging and depression. While researchers aren’t sure if that’s enough to lift you out of depression, the evidence is encouraging.
There are social benefits to exercising that can help improve your mood as well. Joining a club or meeting friends to walk or work out with can help lift the sense of isolation you can develop when you’re depressed.
How long will it take to feel better?
People suffering from major depression have experienced a boost in emotional well-being and energy from as little as a single 30-minute workout, according to a small study published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. But for the best results, the exercise program should last at least two months, according to the Harvard Mental Health Newsletter.
Does the exercise have to be vigorous?
No, any kind will help. In a study published in 2005, researchers tested the effects of a three-month exercise program on people with mild to moderate depression. They divided 80 participants into five groups, with one of them exercising vigorously three days a week and another five days a week; two groups doing “low-dose” exercise three and five days a week, and another (the control group) doing only stretching.
Symptoms of depression dropped in all five groups, but they did take the biggest tumble in the rigorous exercise program, falling by an average of 47 percent. That means that the program of vigorous exercise was about as effective as antidepressant medication and cognitive therapy, the two main treatments for depression.
What kind of exercise is best for improving my mood?
There’s no evidence that any one kind of exercise is best. Most studies have looked at running or other aerobic activities. But studies that have also compared the effects of low-intensity activities, such as walking, and nonaerobic workouts, such as weight training, have found that these types of exercise are equally effective in reducing anxiety and depression. You don’t even have to achieve an improvement in strength or cardiovascular fitness to reap the emotional benefits.
How can I make myself exercise when I can barely get out of bed?
It may seem impossible to make the effort to exercise on your own. If you are severely depressed, talk to your doctor first about psychotherapy or medication, or both. After you start to feel a little better, you might look for a structured group exercise program built around activities that you’ve enjoyed in the past.
Joining a walking group is often a good option because you can be at any fitness level and you don’t need any training or special equipment. And just getting outside, especially in good weather, can be therapeutic in itself. Start by walking five to ten minutes a day, and work your way up to 30 or 45 minutes. You may need to keep at it for several weeks before noticing an improvement in your mood, but try to make it a habit you don’t want to give up. It might help to think of this as acquiring a new lifestyle for health that you intend to maintain for the rest of your life. So pace yourself. Studies show that people see the greatest effects after four months of regular exercise.
Remember, exercise isn’t a substitute for other kinds of treatments for depression, such as medication or therapy, but it’s a good complementary activity to add to your regimen. If you have a medical condition or are out of shape, talk with your doctor about the best sort of exercise for you.
– Kate Lee is a former associate editor at Consumer Health Interactive and researcher at Time Inc. Health.
National Institute of Mental Health 5600 Fishers Lane Rockville, MD 20857 Phone: (800) 421-4211
National Foundation for Depressive Illness, Inc. P.O. Box 2257 New York, NY 10016 Phone: (800) 826-3632