Breaking a sweat has many benefits and new studies show that easing depression could be one of them.
New research published in the American Journal of Psychiatry followed 22,000 adults for more than a decade and compared rates of depression among those who never exercised with those who exercised more than four hours per week. Those who got no exercise at all were 44% more apt to be diagnosed with depression than those who exercised at least one hour per week.
Numerous studies have shown exercise could ease depression and, in some cases, might be just as effective as antidepressant medications.
AEROBIC EXERCISE VS. ANTIDEPRESSANTS
One study found that depressed adults who engaged in aerobic exercise showed mood improvements similar to depressed adults who took Zoloft. In a second study, 30% of adults who did not show improvements while taking selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, medications often used to treat depression, went into remission after participating in an exercise program for 12 weeks.
Dr. Marcia Valenstein, a psychiatrist and professor emerita at University of Michigan admits that the reasons exercise reduces depressive symptoms are not fully understood, but she points to potential exercise-induced brain changes, including reductions in inflammatory markers and increases in brain-derived neurotrophic factor, a brain protein that is suppressed in depression.
In addition to alleviating the symptoms of depression, exercise can also help improve quality of life for those living with the disease.
A study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found women with mild depression who engaged in 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week or 200 minutes of walking per week experienced benefits to their well-being.
“The aspects of quality of life that [we] found were particularly improved with exercise in women with depression are mental health, feeling energized, social engagement and physical functioning,” explains researcher Kristi Heesch, DrPH and a senior lecturer in health promotion at Queensland University of Technology in Australia.
Heesch notes that the benefits to psychological well-being were greater among women with depression (compared to those without a mental health diagnosis) because there was greater capacity for improvement. Her advice, “Walk for exercise.”
FINDING THE MOTIVATION
Despite the positive benefits of exercise on depression, Valenstein acknowledges it can be a struggle for those dealing with depression to find the motivation to exercise.
Valenstein co-authored a 2017 study published in the journal General Hospital Psychiatry that found 80% of those receiving treatment at a mental health clinic believed exercise improved their mood, but more than half admitted that their moods impaired their ability to lace up their sneakers to break a sweat.
“Some of the core symptoms of depression include a lack of interest in previously pleasurable activities and low energy levels [and] fatigue,” she explains. “So, it is difficult for people to want to have interest or the energy to engage in physical activity.”
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Finding support like recruiting a walking partner or signing up for a group exercise class could help you commit to regular physical activity. Valenstein also suggests working with your mental health provider about the potential for exercise to alleviate the symptoms of depression.
“If you are in mental health treatment, talk to your [healthcare] provider about the role of exercise in addressing your symptoms and come up with a plan to integrate more physical activity into your life,” she says.