Move over, medication. These days if you are suffering from depression and anxiety, your doctor could prescribe a daily walk or a yoga class. More and more, as we study the complex interactions between the physical and the psychological aspects of help, researchers are learning that physical exercise does more than get your body in shape.
According to a researcher at the Mayo Clinic, a nationally respected health center, “increasing physical activity is a positive and active strategy to help manage depression and anxiety.”
Exercise can help your mood and keep you emotionally fit in many different ways. It is believed that regular physical exercise helps regulate the levels of neurotransmitters in the brain which regulate moods. Exercise also boosts the levels of endorphins, the feel-good chemicals in your brain, which can help lift sadness and depression, and reduces levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. All of these changes can reduce anxiety, worry, sadness and other emotions associated with depression, as well as relieving muscle stress and tension that leads to pain and can worsen depression.
Exercise has many benefits to a person suffering from depression. While exercise is not a substitute for medical treatment if you are suffering from depression, it can be a part of an overall strategy to help you recover and manage your symptoms, as well as to help prevent relapses. In addition to the physical effects of exercise, there are psychological benefits to exercise that can help improve your mood and lead to a quicker and longer lasting recovery from depression. These benefits of exercise for depression include:
Among the symptoms of depression are feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness. Physical exercise often leads to a sense of accomplishment that can increase good feelings about yourself when you need it most. Exercise can also help you feel better about your appearance and your self-worth. Meeting small goals is an excellent way to start boosting self-confidence with the feeling of accomplishment you take in completing challenges.
Exercise can help distract you from dwelling on the problems in your life because your mind has to focus on other things. Dwelling on your symptoms can make them worse by interfering with your ability to manage and cope with them in a healthy way, making depression more severe and long-lasting. When you exercise, your mind is shifted away from thoughts of your depression and focused instead on pleasant thoughts – your surroundings, your physical abilities, even the music that you choose to listen to when you exercise.
Interactions and Socialization
People suffering from depression often withdraw socially and isolate themselves from others. The isolation can worsen the depression. Exercise is not always a guarantee of socialization, but exercising can often offer opportunities for social contact and building relationships with others. Even interactions as simple and brief as exchanging a wave and smile with neighbors as you walk around the neighborhood can have a beneficial effect on your condition.
Other Ways Exercise May Help
The more we learn about the way our bodies function, the more we find out how interconnected all of our bodily processes are. Eating right is important for your health, for example. Your body needs the proper nutrients to fuel its energy requirements. Among those nutrients are those that your brain uses to manufacture and process the chemicals that are vital to your emotional health. Physical exercise releases chemicals in your brain and in nearly every other part of your body that improve the efficiency with which your body processes and uses those nutrients. When you exercise, your body is able to make and use all the chemicals that it needs to stay healthy, physically and emotionally.
Physical activity also burns up adrenaline and other stress-related chemicals that contribute to anxiety and feelings of restlessness and irritation. Between the reduction of adrenaline and the increase in serotonin, physical exercise promotes a more relaxed state of mind.
Finally, one of the components of depression that many people do not understand or realize is that depression can cause physical pain, in part due to muscle tension and stiffness. Exercise loosens those muscles and relieves tension, leading to less pain, and less pain naturally leads to an improved state of mind.
Getting Yourself to Exercise
Knowing that exercise is good for you, however, is not often enough to get you out there exercising, especially if you’re already in the midst of dealing with depression. The Mayo Clinic offers some tips for getting yourself moving.
- Choose a fun activity rather than making exercise a chore.
- Share your plans with a friend or family member and ask them to exercise with you.
- Try to live a more active lifestyle rather than just adding “exercise sessions” to your schedule. Walk instead of driving. Climb stairs instead of the elevator.
- Set reasonable goals. Start small – walk ten minutes once or twice a week instead of trying to walk an hour everyday right off the bat.
- Address your barriers. Think about the things that would stop you from exercising, and do something that takes them into account.