Using Exercise to Manage Depression

Quoting an article from the October 4, 2014 online newsletter issue of Emotional Health Daily Newsletter, posted by Everyday Health, Inc., 4 Marshall Street, North Adams, MA 01247
Author: Diana Rodriguez
Medically reviewed by Pat F. Bass III, MD, MPH

A regular exercise routine can help relieve stress and depression. But first you’ll need to find the energy to get started.

There are many ways to manage depression. Therapy and medication are often the mainstays of depression treatment, but simple lifestyle changes, particularly developing and maintaining a regular exercise routine, can benefit people with depression and improve stress management.

There’s little doubt that exercise can be very effective in managing the symptoms of depression — research backs it up, says Erik Nelson, MD, a psychiatrist and assistant professor of clinical psychiatry at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine in Ohio.

For mild depression, studies show that “exercise can be very helpful in eliminating symptoms for some people,” says Dr. Nelson. “For people with more significant depression, it may not work completely on its own, but can be part of a regimen of treatments.” Exercise can certainly enhance the effects of medication or therapy, he adds.

Experts don’t know exactly how exercise eases stress and depression, Nelson says, but studies suggest it causes biological changes in the brain. It may be that a physiological response to stress, which can worsen depression symptoms, is improved with exercise. Following an exercise routine can also bolster self-esteem, which is important for someone dealing with depression. “Psychologically, it helps people feel better about themselves,” says Nelson.

Many people struggle to find the energy to exercise. For someone with depression, committing to an exercise routine can be even tougher, since a lack of motivation and low energy levels are classic symptoms of depression.

“It’s a paradox — something that could really help, but is hard sometimes for people to initiate,” says Nelson. However, people with depression can develop a successful exercise routine.

Try these tips to find the motivation and energy to start and maintain an exercise routine:

  • Consider exercise part of your treatment. You can ask your doctor or therapist for ideas to make exercise an integral component of your prescribed plan and get advice for sticking with it.
  • Work out with company. Finding a workout buddy or joining an exercise program can be a great motivator, Nelson says. (Our class members can attest to the truth of that advice!) Since people with depression tend to withdraw socially, the social interaction will provide an additional benefit.
  • Start slowly and work your way up. Recognizing your fitness level and setting small, realistic goals is very important for keeping a positive attitude about exercise. Trying to do too much too soon — and being unsuccessful — can be a huge step backward for people with depression. It can “feed into the depression,” Nelson says, whereas gradually building your strength and reaching your goals can create a sense of satisfaction.
  • Do what you can. Experts recommend exercising between four and six days per week for a minimum of 30 minutes each day. If that seems unrealistic for you, start with shorter workout sessions, or work out fewer days. Every step you take and every minute you exercise will benefit your mind and body.
  • Find an activity you enjoy. Yoga and other mind-body exercises are great for people with depression because they work the body while focusing and calming the mind. You can also try playing sports, swimming, hiking, or going for a walk in pleasant surroundings. If you choose an activity that you look forward to, exercising won’t be a chore.
  • Once you’ve started an exercise routine, you’ve overcome a big hurdle. But you have to keep it up to maintain the benefits. Even when your depression symptoms are well-managed, Nelson says, a regular exercise routine will help keep depressive episodes at bay.

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