Regular physical exercise is just about the most valuable lifestyle change you can make in combatting depression.
If you’re predisposed to depression and want to keep the worst demons at bay, or if you’re going through a low period and want to snap out of it, developing an exercise routine is one of the most effective things you can do. People who exercise regularly are more likely to avoid the most painful, debilitating, despairing effects of depression.
Modern medicine does not fully understand what causes depression. It’s almost certainly a combination of factors — nature, nurture, environment, lifestyle. One common theory is that increasingly sedentary modern lifestyles contribute to depression. Modern humans just spend too much time sitting down and staring at screens, and it’s thrown us out of balance. I’m not a scientist, but this theory rings true for me.
Modern medicine is also still figuring out how to treat depression. We’ve found some things that work, but exactly how and why certain treatments work is still being debated and researched. Nonetheless, the evidence is clear and abundant that exercise works.
A recent meta-research study entitled “Physical Activity and the Prevention of Depression: A Systematic Review of Prospective Studies” affirmed this connection. Author George Mammen did not conduct original research, but rather reviewed and collated the results of 30 previous research studies. He found that, “Among these, 25 studies demonstrated that baseline [physical activity] was negatively associated with a risk of subsequent depression.”
How does exercise help ease depression? This post lists a few of the most often proposed reasons.
Exercise releases mood-boosting neurochemicals
Exercise causes your body to release endorphins and endocannabinoids, chemicals known to promote positive feelings and reduce stress. If there’s a wonder drug for depression, it’s these natural chemicals your body produces when you work out.
Long-distance runners and other endurance athletes sometimes describe this effect as “runner’s high”. However, plenty of other forms of exercise work to release mood-boosting body chemicals.
WebMD notes that endorphins share certain chemical properties with painkillers.
Endorphins act as analgesics, which means they diminish the perception of pain. They also act as sedatives. They are manufactured in your brain, spinal cord, and many other parts of your body and are released in response to brain chemicals called neurotransmitters. The neuron receptors endorphins bind to are the same ones that bind some pain medicines. However, unlike with morphine, the activation of these receptors by the body’s endorphins does not lead to addiction or dependence.
(The differences are worth emphasizing. Morphine and similar drugs can produce a short-term euphoria, but they offer no long-term mood or health benefit. The short-term high can be followed by a crashing low, a big danger for anyone coping with depression. Not to mention the danger of addiction.)
A few years back, there was a scholarly dustup over whether endorphins or endocannabinoids were truly responsible for post-exercise euphoria. An interesting read, but ultimately the distinction is unimportant for those of us with a less academic, more pragmatic stake. The crux is that exercise releases body chemicals that promote a feeling of well-being.
Exercise helps fight lethargy and fatigue
One common symptom of depression is low energy during the day, both mental energy and physical energy. You feel tired, lethargic, unmotivated. Working up the energy for simple daily activities can feel overwhelming.
Exercise helps fight this low energy problem. A good workout might leave you feeling exhausted in the short-term, but in the long-term regular exercise boosts your metabolism and beats back fatigue. Healthguidance.org explains:
[Exercise] improves your body’s ability to pump blood around your system and to extract energy from the glucose in it. Your heart rate will improve, your VO2 max, your blood pressure and more – all of which will mean your body gets the energy to the places it’s needed more quickly and easily and you are more energetic more of the time as a result.
I confess, I had to look up “VO2 max”. It refers to the maximum amount of oxygen one can utilize during intense exercise, measured as milliliters of oxygen used in one minute per kilogram of body weight. Marathoners and elite cyclists score really high. Figuring out your own number sounds complicated and not all that useful. The point is that you can boost your aerobic endurance capacity through exercise, and this boost will carry over into your everyday activity.
Exercise helps you sleep better
Poor sleep patterns are a common symptom of depression. Insomnia or fitful sleep at night leaves you feeling exhausted and irritable, which makes you want to curl up in bed and nap during the day, which makes it that much harder to fall asleep at night. Poor sleep patterns can also make your depression worse over time. It’s a vicious, painful cycle.
Exercise is one of the best ways to improve your sleep patterns. Research consistently shows that regular exercise helps you fall asleep quicker at night. It also helps you achieve a deeper, more satisfying and less interrupted night’s sleep. And it leaves you feeling less sleepy and tired during the day.
Why exactly does exercise improve sleep quality? A Sleep Foundation survey notes that “although the exact mechanisms are unknown, there are many possibilities for how exercise may reduce insomnia severity”. Could be “the body-heating effects of exercise”, or maybe “by decreasing arousal, anxiety and depressive symptoms”, or it could be exercise’s “effects on circadian rhythms (body clock)”. A recent New York Times article also notes some open questions: “It is impossible to yet know the sleep-related impacts of workouts of different types (like weight training), intensities or timing”. In other words, there’s a lot we don’t know.
Ultimately, knowing “the exact mechanisms” isn’t all that important. The evidence is clear that exercise helps beat depression, good sleep helps beat depression, and exercise promotes good sleep.
Exercise promotes a sense of confidence, accomplishment, progress
Depression involves a constant barrage of negative thoughts about our self-worth, abilities, past accomplishments and future prospects. Coping with depression requires learning to reject that negative voice that tells us we’re lazy, we’re losers, we’ll never accomplish anything so why bother trying.
Regular exercise helps you counter those negative thoughts by instilling a sense of confidence and accomplishment. Every time you make it to the gym, you’ve proved you’re not lazy. Every time you complete a good workout, you’ve met a challenge and accomplished something that seemed difficult when you started. That confidence can carry over into your other endeavors.
Regular exercise can also promote a sense of progress and possibility. Whether you run or walk on a treadmill or lift weights or do yoga, you can feel yourself getting a little stronger over time. Depression often makes it difficult to see any possibility for changing your life and building a better future. An exercise regimen allows you to see change and progress in a very concrete way, and that feeling can likewise carry over into your other endeavors.
Exercise adds an element of play to daily life
Richard O’Connor, author of Undoing Depression, has posted a very useful bullet-point list entitled “The Basics of Good Self-Care“. One surprising item: “Spend some time every day in play”. I really like this advice.
When done right, physical exercise can feel like play, a simple source of joy that clears your mind of everyday worries.
Of course, this requires selecting types of exercise that you actually enjoy. Personally I enjoy weightlifting, but I know people who dread it. Some people get real joy from yoga or distance running. Some people like solitary workouts, some prefer social exercise like tennis or basketball. Some like variety, some prefer to pursue mastery in one sport. Figure this out for yourself and go play.
If your exercise program feels like drudgery, you’re much less likely to stick with it. If your exercise program feels like play, you’re more likely to stick with it and thus more likely to experience all the other benefits of exercise.
This list of exercise’s depression-smashing benefits is not exhaustive. New research will continue to appear. But the fundamental lesson is clear: regular physical exercise is one of the best things you can do to battle depression.
Some commentators frame the issue as exercise vs anti-depressants. A recent Atlantic article asked, “Aerobic activity has shown to be an effective treatment for many forms of depression. So why are so many people still on antidepressants?” To my mind, this formulation is stupid and irresponsible. There’s absolutely no reason why you can’t treat your depression through physical exercise AND anti-depressant drugs. Feel free to ignore journalists who try to make you feel guilty for taking medication.
Has exercise helped you cope with depression? What kind of exercise do you enjoy? Do any of these points ring especially true for you? Comments much appreciated.