Exercise to Fight Depression

By Kelsey Brown

It’s 6:00 am. Your alarm is blaring, beckoning you to begin your day. You roll over and hit the snooze button, unable to sleep but not yet ready to summon the strength to get out of bed. Your low back throbs and you hardly slept all night.     

You lie there, contemplating whether or not you should even get out of bed at all. You have a good job and a wonderful family and yet, you can’t figure out why you are so unhappy. So tired. So unsatisfied.

Depression is a debilitating disease affecting at least 6.7% of the U.S. population.

It is associated with low self-esteem, pervasive feelings of guilt and worthlessness and a loss of interest and pleasure. Depression, with its multiple contributing factors, can sneak up on you when your life is going horribly wrong or when it’s going perfectly well.

If you’ve ever experienced a bout of depression, you know how crushing the disease can be. It is as if your whole life, your every action, is being weighed down by a boulder that is built entirely of your own misery.  

Depression comes with other negative side effects such as physical pain, poor sleep, weight gain, social withdrawal and higher risks of substance abuse and chronic disease. Thus depression is cyclical and self-promoting; its symptoms serve to deepen the disease.  

So what does exercise have to do with this? We know that exercise is impactful in preventing and treating cardiovascular disease and Diabetes, but what can it do for depression?

As it turns out, quite a lot.

Research has found that individuals who report the lowest levels of activity have the highest levels of depression. Other research reveals that as societal levels of physical activity have decreased, rates of depression have gone up and multiple studies using exercise as a treatment for depression have shown promising results.

How Exercise Helps

There are a few key explanations for how exercise helps to prevent and reduce depression.

  • Exercise increases feel-good hormones called endorphins that may be low in people suffering from depression. This is the idea behind the famous “runners high.”

  • Exercise has been shown to boost self-esteem, something that is characteristically low in depression sufferers.

  • Exercise can improve sleep, which can help to break the cycle of depression.

  • Exercise can serve as a coping or distraction strategy.

  • Exercise can be a great way to allow for social interaction in individuals whose disease may limit this.

And the benefits of exercise exist independent of changes in fitness. That means you don’t have to lose 20 pounds or run a sub 7-minute mile to experience the mood-enhancing benefits.

However, there’s one little problem with this whole exercise to beat the blues idea...

When you’re depressed you don’t really want to get out of bed, let alone lace up your running shoes and hit the pavement.

How then, can you find ways to use exercise to help you overcome depression?

Practical Strategies for using Exercise to Beat Depression: 

  • Start small. Build exercise into your daily regimen slowly. 5-10 minutes at a time is a great starting point.  

  • Anything counts. You don’t have to run 5 miles or enroll at your nearest Cross Fit.  Any movement, be it walking, dancing, roller blading or even gardening will do. Focus on finding activities that you enjoy instead of forcing yourself to exercise in ways you think you should.

  • Frequency > intensity. Exercise that is comfortable and enjoyable is most likely to yield results. Low to moderate intensity exercise done daily is better than high intensity exercise done a few times a week (don’t discount walking – it has a ton of mental and physical health benefits)

  • Exercise with others. This is a great way to increase your social interaction and build feelings of camaraderie and support

  • Exercise the body and mind. Work mindfulness practices into your exercise sessions to reap maximum benefits. This can include deep breathing, and stretching. I love to finish my exercise sessions with a few minutes of deep breathing and checking in to see how my body feels.

  • Reflect. Exercise can be especially powerful in treating depression when you reflect on your experience and accomplishments after each exercise session. This can be done in your head or written down 

  • Combine with other forms of treatment. In many cases, exercise cannot act as a stand-alone treatment for depression. Consider combining exercise with CBT or antidepressant therapy. You can even look into alternative treatments such as vitamins and supplements or acupuncture.

There have been times in my own life where I struggled through periods of deep depression. Exercise was, and is, an integral part of my healing process.

Committing to taking action towards overcoming your pain can be a powerful strengthening process. Exercise is an excellent step that you can take today. It requires no money (beyond the cost of a pair of shoes) or resources and delivers immediate and cumulative benefits.  

If you’re struggling with depression, begin building small increments of exercise into your daily schedule (remember – walking counts!). This small habit, when repeated consistently, can have a profound effect on your happiness and quality of life.