How exercise can help with depression

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No doubt that moving makes us feel good but did you know some scientists claim exercise can be as effective as anti-depressants for those suffering with clinical depression?  

When you’re feeling low, exercise can be the last thing on your mind. It could just help you lift you and we’re not suggesting you have to go full-on circuits to feel the benefits.

How exactly does exercise help our mental health?
There are many feelgood hormones that help to make up our moods, including serotonin, oxytocin, dopamine and endorphins. They all do different things but belong to the general category of neurotransmitters, chemical messengers that allow cells to communicate with each other. 

  • Oxytocin: plays an important role in bonding. 
  • Dopamine: helps us feel pleasure. 
  • Endorphins and serotonin: increase our sense of wellbeing, by stimulating the body to release these hormones you can boost your mood. 

Things that boost endorphin production include eating chocolate, laughing and having sex, and one of the best ways to get your endorphins flowing is to exercise. 

Why does exercise produce endorphins?
Endorphins also play a part in pain relief. It’s thought that the reason we experience a boost in endorphins during exercise is to reduce the brain’s perception of pain so that we keep going. 

  • Exercise reduces our risk of major illnesses such as heart disease, some types of cancer and stroke. 
  • A study suggested 20 minutes of exercise a day, 3 times a week at a moderate intensity is enough to significantly reduce symptoms of depression. 
  • NHS recommendations are that adults aged 19-64 do 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity a week, spread evenly over 4-5 days. 

What counts as exercise?
We’re talking anything that gets you moving. Could be a half hour brisk walk or a kick about in the park. Anything that gets you breathing and heart rate up can be good for your mental wellbeing.

Can exercise really replace antidepressants?
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), depression is a leading cause of disability worldwide. It’s commonly treated with antidepressants, which can be a very effective treatment.

Antidepressants can take a while to work appropriately and some experience negative side effects. Finding non-pharmaceutical treatments that work can be used alongside medication to ease symptoms.

Non-pharmaceutical treatment options for depression include:  

  • Talking therapy 
  • Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) 
  • Meditation  
  • Exercise 

We know that exercise can improve the symptoms of depression, boosting mood, lowering feelings of anxiety and stress levels. If you’re struggling with depression, it’s worth considering exercise as an important part of your treatment.

However, don’t go throwing out your anti-depressants just yet. There have been studies that show the improvement was short term, or that it was only helpful for those with very mild depression. The most generally accepted stance is that exercise is a fantastic treatment option for depression, but most effective when used alongside other treatments.

This can look different for different people. For example, you might take antidepressants but find that increasing your activity levels lowers your symptoms even more, or you might put cognitive behavioural therapy approaches into practice in your life while also making sure to exercise three times a week. 

What if I can’t exercise?
Apart from anything else, people who have depression are more likely to be sedentary, and low mood is not conducive to wanting to lace up your trainers and go for a run.  It’s perfectly fine to do as much as you are able to and nothing more. If you feel up to it, great. If you don’t, that’s OK too, just try again another day.  

Another thing to keep in mind is that ‘exercise’ doesn’t need to be as vigorous as you’re probably imagining when you think of marathon training, hour-long cardio sessions or lifting big. A walk, a swim, some gardening or hoovering get you up and moving too. 

All the recommendations suggest moderate activity has the best effect but see that as something to work up to and start with what you can manage. Keep in mind that any progress above sitting still is progress you should be proud of. 

Help with depression
If you’re struggling with your mental health, make an appointment to see your GP ASAP. It’s hard but help is out there, and it starts with a conversation. 

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