Can Exercise Help Symptoms of Depression?

It is estimated that 7.1% of the United States population has experienced at least one depressive episode in the past 12 months, making depression the leading mental disorder in the country. Often people will take to Google, looking for natural remedies or ways to help alleviate symptoms without using medication. One common recommendation is that exercise can help people suffering from anxiety or depression. Curious? Keep reading below to understand more about how exercise can be a powerful recovery tool for those seeking support with their symptoms.


Runners High

Is there any truth to the expression ‘Runners High?’ It’s used to describe the feel-good effect of neurotransmitter chemicals that are released during exercise that increase a person’s mood after a workout. So it is no wonder that more and more psychologists are combining traditional antidepressant medication with exercise to treat patients experiencing depression and or anxiety.

If you understand the cause of depression and the effects of exercise it makes perfect sense. William Walsh, Ph.D., president of the Walsh Research Institute, a nonprofit mental health research institution in Illinois, says ‘simply put, depression and anxiety are caused by chemical imbalances in the brain.’ Countless studies have shown that exercise releases feel-good chemicals.


Understanding Endorphins

Endorphins are only one of many neurotransmitters released when you exercise. Physical activity also stimulates the release of dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. These brain chemicals play a vital role in regulating your mood.

For example, regular exercise can positively impact serotonin levels in your brain. Raising your levels of serotonin boosts your mood and overall sense of well-being. It can also help improve your appetite and sleep cycles, which are often negatively affected by depression. Getting exercise doesn’t mean you have to break the bank in the meantime, possibly making your depression and anxiety levels worse. Consider setting up an accountability partner to take walks in the park with you several days a week. The physical impact will surely boost your mood as well as getting social stimulation too.


Home Gym Options

If doing activities in public is stressful in itself to attempt, consider buying a simple yoga mat. If you have no idea what a down dog is there are plenty of online yoga sessions to get you started. There can still be a social and accountability aspect of practicing yoga via online sessions but in a private setting. Physical activity in the privacy of your own home can remove the anxiety of not having the newest workout gear or looking silly when you’re not as strong as so and so at the gym. Simple resistance bands are another option for getting in-home exercise. And, if traveling for work has you making excuses, resistance bands are packable and are a great way to get in the endorphin boosting activity to keep your brain chemicals in check. Setting goals for yourself can also boost your confidence and sense of control.


Long Term Benefits

So now that the endorphin rush you feel after a good workout is explained, doesn’t that rush eventually wear off?

A study conducted by the University of Toronto showed that individuals who are active for 20-30 minutes each day can fend off depression in the long-term. Choose a workout that you love, such as pilates, running or swimming, and make it a regular part of your routine to not only ward off but according to the study, prevent depression.

Michael Phelps Olympic gold medal winner, went public in 2018 at a Talkspace conference saying, ‘it’s ok to not be ok,’ referring to his struggles with anxiety and depression. So how does the most decorated Olympic athlete cope? Phelps says he uses several strategies, including a 5 a.m. workout before his two kids wake up. He goes on to discuss the link between exercise and depression. Just knowing that one of the most elite athletes in the world actively works through mental health challenges should show that working out is not a cure-all for mental illness.

However, by utilizing exercise in combination with medication and/or talk therapy with a licensed medical professional, you can make great progress towards happy days ahead.

No matter what, it’s important to remind yourself that you are human and imperfect at times. When Phelps couldn’t find time to work out for any reason, such as being in transit, he noticed the negative impact on his mental health. It became as simple as making the time, no matter where he was, instead of being harsh with himself or making up excuses not to.



Set Realistic Expectations

Depression and anxiety often cause overwhelming feelings of fatigue that simply can’t be pushed through. So be patient with yourself during these times. What you don’t want to do is feel guilty for missing a workout when you’re already feeling low.

Keep your exercise expectations practical and realistic. You wouldn’t give yourself a guilt trip for missing a workout when you have a cold, so if your episode is just too much, be gentle on yourself. Remember though, that exercise often lifts us out of these dark places.



About the Author

Ann Kaknon has been in the fitness industry for over 10 years including work as a dietician, personal trainer, and athletic trainer.   She now spends her time at home with her kids and writing about her fitness experiences on the side.   If you want to contact her you can do so on her LinkedIn or blog.


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Written by HealthStatus Crew
Medical Writer & Editor

HealthStatus teams with authors from organizations to share interesting ideas, products and new health information to our readers.

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