Exercise May Help Protect Against and Reduce the Symptoms of Depression

A healthy lifestyle may help slow the brain's aging process.

Think about how good you feel after a brisk walk, a night of dancing, or a game of tennis. You may be a little physically tired, but your mental and emotional outlook is usually bright. And the more exercise you get, the lower your odds are of developing depression, according to a study published recently in the American Journal of Psychiatry. Researchers who studied more than 30,000 men and women for an average of 11 years found that people who did not exercise regularly had a 44 percent greater risk of developing depression compared to those who were physically active for at least one hour a week.

“We know that exercise has a dose-response effect on mood, such that the more you exercise, the better you will feel,” says psychologist Louisa Sylvia, PhD, associate director of psychology at the Bipolar Clinic & Research Program at Massachusetts General Hospital. “So, I am not surprised that an hour can make a difference, especially if these individuals were doing at least an hour of exercise (on average) for so long, or at least 11 years. But I would continue to work with these people to try and get closer to two hours per week of exercise.”

WHAT YOU CAN DO

  • Break up your daily exercise routine into 10- or 15-minute blocks if walking or exercising for 30 to 40 minutes continuously isn’t convenient or physically possible.
  • Exercise with a partner to help keep you motivated and to make the experience more enjoyable. Having a workout partner is also helpful if one of you suffers an injury or develops symptoms such as shortness of breath or a racing heart.
  • Find an activity you enjoy. This will make it less likely that you’ll get bored and stop. Participating in several types of sports or workouts is also helpful to avoid the monotony of the same activity week after week.

Exercise and Mood

Exercise’s positive effect on mood is a well-established fact. Numerous studies have found that people who are physically active are generally less depressed than sedentary people. For example, research has shown that people who exercise regularly, and then stop for whatever reason, tend to be more depressed than those who continue to exercise consistently. Other studies have found that people who have been diagnosed with major depressive disorders can reduce their symptoms within a few months if they participate in a supervised exercise program.

You may have heard that exercise helps trigger the body’s release of endorphins. These are known as “feel good” chemicals because they induce feelings of pleasure similar to those produced by opioids. Endorphins also interact with receptors in the brain to help reduce your perception of pain. Dr. Sylvia explains that there is much more going on in the brain of someone who is exercising regularly than one who is not. “Exercise has been shown to enhance neurogenesis, or growth of new neurons, which has a protective factor on our brain health, such as reducing one’s risk for depression,” she says.

Guarding Against Depression

While exercise may be an effective weapon in preventing and treating depression, this common mental disorder can’t always be deflected by working up a sweat. Famous athletes, such as Hall of Fame quarterback Terry Bradshaw and Olympic diving champion Greg Louganis, have been open about their struggles with depression. Some people find temporary relief while playing sports or exercising. It’s important to realize, however, that depression can affect anyone, regardless of their physical fitness, wealth, age, marital status, education, or any other factors.

Dr. Sylvia says it’s important to be aware of your risks for depression. “Depression is pervasive, affecting over 16 million adults each year,” she says. “There is not one strategy or tool that will ward off depression, especially for people who have a very strong genetic predisposition (or vulnerability) for it.”

Depression has many potential causes, including genes that may make you more likely to become depressed. Other factors include:

  • Chemical imbalances in the brain
  • Impaired nerve cell growth and connectivity, as well as nerve circuit function
  • Abnormal development of the parts of the brain that regulate mood.

For some people, the loss of a spouse, developing a chronic disease, or other external event can bring on depression. For others, there are no obvious reasons why depression takes hold.

Get Moving…Even a Little

If depression already has you or someone you love in its grip, it can be difficult to find the motivation to exercise. Just getting out of bed can be a challenge for someone facing this troubling disorder. Dr. Sylvia acknowledges this problem, and recommends “baby steps” before tackling a marathon.

“Do not make big goals,” she says. “Think small. For example, plan to put your shoes on and to go outside. Then, perhaps walk around your house or block and see what you feel up to doing next. For someone with depression, ‘failing’ at their goals feels much worse than it does for others. Therefore, it is much more important to succeed or accomplish your goals. If you start small and continue to make small changes, you will end up at the same place as someone who sets one large goal in the middle. Think of the old story of the tortoise and the hare. I encourage you to be the tortoise—proceed slowly and gradually.”

If depression hasn’t invaded your life, keep on moving, whether it’s a daily walk, swim or bicycle ride. You’ll be doing your heart and your mind a world of good.

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