Is physical activity the best medicine for depression?




Laughter may be the best medicine, but physical activity comes in close second when it comes to fighting depression. That's right – physical activity is good for more than just strengthening your body and improving your health! Exercise gives you a rush of positive emotions and provides an avenue for you to practice discipline and control. In other words, having a regular exercise regimen just might make it easier to beat the blues!

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Is physical activity the best medicine 1Photo: Active Health

How exactly does exercise fight off depression?

• The biological effect

Some people may already be familiar with the “runner’s high”, which is a sense of euphoria typically experienced during or right after a particularly intense run. This sense of joy is a result of the production of endorphins, the hormone responsible for making us feel good, but that’s not the only way in which exercise can improve your mood. In fact, exercise of lower intensity, when performed regularly over time can improve your overall mood and relieve symptoms of depression. It’s not just a myth – long-term exercise has been found to increase the size of the hippocampus in the brain, helping you to regulate your emotions better. This is the result of a slow and steady build-up of nerve cell connections, facilitated by proteins released during exercise.

• Build a sense of control and achievement

Exercise provides a great opportunity for you to build mental strength and resilience. First off, it takes your mind off things and helps you shift your mindset to a fresh state, even if momentarily. Next, a hard workout provides a healthy outlet to release pent-up anger and frustration. Most importantly, the very act of persevering through a workout provides an excellent opportunity for you to practice mental control. Successfully finishing a workout also gives you every reason to feel a sense of accomplishment and pride!

• An exercise in mindfulness

Depression is very much a mental illness and what makes physical activity such a good remedy is the fact that it gives you an abundance of opportunities to practice mindfulness. Training requires to be in the moment and takes a significant amount of focus – you can't just auto-pilot your way through. Through this, exercise can make you more cognisant of your thoughts, which is a core aspect of mindfulness.

The best exercises for coping with depression

Even if you’re someone who hasn’t exercised for years, it’s never too late to try some simple exercises to help you cope with and manage depression better.

1. Cardio exercises

Cardio exercise are the ones that really get your heart pounding and your blood pumping – they are ideal for achieving the aforementioned “runner’s high”. While cardio exercises such as running or HIIT training can be more physically strenuous, their tiring nature is what makes them great exercises for people who wish to take their mind off things and indulge in some escapism. The optimum duration of exercise? Experts recommend about 20 to 30 minutes a day, for several days of the week depending on your fitness level and time allowance.

2. Aerobic exercises

Aerobic exercises focus on endurance and stamina training and typically feature repetitive motions conducted over a longer stretch of time. Some of the best aerobic exercises include swimming and cycling. Once you’ve found your perfect pace, getting into “the zone” will be easy and that’s when you’ll feel a sense of mental and physical control like never before.

3. Strength training

Going to the gym and lifting weights may not be everyone's cup of tea, but the gradual process of building strength makes strength-training a great form of exercise to harness discipline and self-control. Strength-training is a wonderful discipline for helping one overcome depression because it’s all about constant improvement and achieving goals, which makes for an immensely satisfying experience.

READ: The importance of strength training for women

4. Yoga

The main benefit of yoga is that it is an excellent way to practice mindfulness. The act of controlling your breathing and thoughts during yoga helps you practice filtering out the darker emotions and focusing on the present. Mastering the poses also gives you a sense of achievement and gives you new goals to work towards, which will give you a sense of purpose with each new session.

5. Simple outdoor activities

Aside from traditional exercise, even simple physical activities can help you cope with depression. Taking a walk outside, playing leisurely ball games or even gardening can boost your mood and realign your state of mind. Just make sure you do this outdoors, since it’s the exposure to sunlight that triggers the production of serotonin, a hormone responsible for feelings of happiness.

Before making a physical change to your lifestyle, it pays to spend some time on defining your workouts and setting some goals. All forms of exercise carry a certain amount of risk, and getting injured does nothing helpful for an already affected mind. Thankfully, such risks can be mitigated through a combination of common sense and smart planning.

Is physical activity the best medicine 2Photo: Active Health

Tips for safe, enjoyable and effective workouts

• Manage the intensity of your workouts

There are various levels of exercise intensity. As mentioned previously, high-intensity workouts are typically the ones that give you that much-desired “runner’s high”, but these are also the kind that can leave you breathless. Choosing the type of intensity depends on two things: what you want to achieve and your personal preference. If you have specific goals like a timing that you wish to hit or a certain number of repetitions you want to do, getting advice from a sports professional is the way to go – a fitness assessment can be done at our Active Health Labs to give you a better idea of your ideal starting point. If you don’t really have a specific goal, the best option is to exercise at the intensity that you enjoy best.

• Pick the right types of exercise

Along with selecting your own workout intensity, choosing the actual activities also makes working out far more enjoyable and makes it easier to stay committed. Go for exercises that you genuinely enjoy – they’re meant to make you feel better after all!

READ ALSO: 5 workouts you can do at home


• Choose a good environment

A good training environment makes all the difference in the quality of your workouts. Where possible, try to exercise outdoors. Being under sunlight and amongst fresh air will definitely work some magic on your mental health, and the change in scenery will make things less monotonous.

• Monitor and track your progress

Proper tracking forces you to be accountable for your progress and makes it less likely for you to give up or suffer a relapse. Whenever feelings of doubt set in, having an actual log of your training sessions will remind you of how far you've come. Schedule a monthly review so that you these positive vibes can be a regular occurrence with you.

While everything so far sounds simple, actually following through with your exercise plans may not always be as straight-forward as you might think. The biggest problem for most is finding the motivation to start, especially when one hasn’t been active in a long time. It’s important to recognise that while your fears are valid, you shouldn’t let them hold you back because such fears are often an accompanying aspect of depression and by giving in to them, you are depriving yourself of a chance at recovery.

Is physical activity the best medicine 3Photo: Active Health

How your brain is holding you back

• Hormonal imbalances

There’s a possible biological explanation why you find it so hard to get started on recovery when you are depressed, and it involves dopamine – the hormone responsible for making you feel excited and motivated. Most hormonal imbalances can be traced back to nutritional deficiencies, so making sure that your diet is on point can help you to address this.

• Social anxiety

Relentless fear and worry over how others perceive you is definitely something that depressed people struggle with. Experiencing social anxiety is perfectly normal but remember that these concerns are just unnecessary worries and that no one will actually be judging you. Don't give up when you haven't even started yet!

• Poor self-esteem

Depression makes you feel like you can’t do anything right and as a result, creates this self-berating voice in your head. It’s hard to ignore this critic when it’s a part of your psyche, but lowering your expectations can help make it easier to start. While a lot has been said about “shooting for the moon”, there's nothing wrong with having goals that are easier to reach. Lower your standards and reward yourself for every bit of progress that you make. Seek support from friends and family – having them there by you when you hit an obstacle can give you the push you need to break through!

Finding the motivation to start and persevere on your own can be really hard when your brain keeps working against you, so don’t hesitate to seek professional guidance from counsellors or coaches when needed. Both formal and informal social support can go a long way in helping you keep up with your exercise goals in the long term!

Exercise can be a potent long-term solution for coping with and overcoming depression. However, it’s important to recognise up front that while exercise has many benefits to your mental health, it should never be seen as the sole cure for your condition. In more serious cases of depression, exercise doesn’t remove the need for medication and therapy, nor is it an absolute prevention against relapse. Exercise won’t always make you feel better all the time either. In the long run however, it does help you to regain control and create a sense of ownership over your life, and that's the perfect anathema to depression.

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Topics: Physical Activity