According to the World Health Organization, depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide. A large body of research shows that physical activity has the ability to protect against depression by lifting your mood, energy, and focus in a variety of ways.
And the best part? You don't necessarily have to do one specific type of exercise to get these benefits, or for a very long period of time.
Even short bouts of activity are capable of reducing depression symptoms, plus fighting off a number of other mood and cognitive-related issues. Below we'll look more closely at how exercise can play a role in both preventing and treating depression, plus offer tips for getting started if you're not already very active.
How Exercise Helps Prevent Depression
Studies consistently show that people who exercise regularly tend to experience fewer depression symptoms (such as fatigue and ruminating negative thoughts), and often bounce back more easily from negative moods compared to those who don't exercise.
The opposite is also thought to be true: a relationship exists between sedentary behavior, lack of physical activity, and depression. One study found that 1-week of forced sedentary behavior caused bad moods and even some depression symptoms among normally active individuals.
Here's something else that's pretty remarkable: according to Harvard Health Publishing, "Exercise is as effective as antidepressants in some cases." This is why today exercise interventions are considered viable alternatives or complement to drug therapies for mood disorders.
The benefits of exercise give hope to people with depression who do not respond to antidepressant medications well, or who experience side effects that make these drugs hard to keep taking.
Here are some of the ways positively exercise affects your brain and mood:
Improves functions of areas of the brain responsible for mood regulation — More intense workouts, like running or vigorous weight-lifting sessions, can alter certain structures in the brain such as the hippocampus, which is responsible for decision making and emotion regulation. Exercise also defends brain cells against damage. Additionally, intense workouts can spur neuroplasticity and the production of proteins called neurotrophic or growth factors, which help promote neural pathways and connections that have antidepressant effects.
Releases endorphins — If you've ever experienced a "runner's high" during or shortly after a workout, then you're familiar with the mood-lifting effects of endorphins. Endorphins are described as "feel-good chemicals" that help decrease your perception of pain and stress, while increasing motivation, pleasure, and positive feelings.
Increases blood flow to the brain— Exercise is a good way to boost circulation, which increases how much blood reaches your brain, and has natural anti-inflammatory effects. Inflammation is thought to potentially contribute to some depression symptoms due to how it affects the production of neurotransmitters.
Serves as a form of mindfulness — Some people describe exercises such as yoga or even walking outdoors as types of "moving meditations." These forms of exercise emphasize focusing on your breath and letting negative thoughts pass without harping on them, which is helpful for battling stress and low self-esteem.
Can help you sleep better — Those who are more active during the daytime tend to sleep better at night, thereby reducing feelings of daytime fatigue and lack of concentration or motivation which usually accompanies depression.
Offers many other health benefits, which reduces stress —Aside from mental health benefits, getting regular exercise also protects against many chronic health conditions that can lead to stress and depression due to limitations, such as chronic pain, obesity, heart disease, and diabetes.
The Best Types of Exercise for Mental Health
The tricky thing about exercise and depression is the initial motivation needed to get started. Depressed people often lack the energy needed to start a new routine and to engage in new healthy habits, however with support it's possible to get the ball rolling in the right direction.
The key is to start off slow and to find something you enjoy.
One study conducted on U.S. adults found that people could achieve better mental wellbeing by doing as little as two hours of exercise each week (equal to about 20 minutes per day).
This means that you don't have to commit to running a marathon; instead, consider taking a daily walk outdoors.
Some of the most recommended types of exercise for relieving and preventing depression include:
Running and jogging
Cycling and spinning (indoors or outdoors)
Using an elliptical trainer
Here are some tips and ideas for adopting an exercise routine that benefits both your mental and physical health:
First, think about which type of activity is more appealing to you. There’s evidence that just about any type of exercise has depression-fighting effects, ranging from yoga to weight lifting. This is good news because it means there’s room for variety.
Wear a fitness tracker that records your daily steps. Try to slowly increase until you reach a target of about 10K steps or more per day. Not all your steps need to be from walking or running — you can increase your daily steps by doing things like taking the stairs, parking further away from your destination, clearing your home, etc.
Try to incorporate some aerobic/cardio exercise into your weekly routines, such as cycling or walking briskly, as this type seems to be especially good for managing things like anxiety and negative thoughts.
If possible, exercise outdoors, in the sunlight, and in natural or “green spaces.” Studies show that working out in natural settings like parks, forests and beaches tend to be even more powerful for mental health than exercising indoors.
If it helps to keep you accountable, try working out with a friend, group, or trainer. Exercising with others can double as a social outlet which is beneficial for reducing the isolation that can accompany depression.
Keep in mind that exercise alone may not be enough to manage your depression. Don’t stop taking medications prescribed by your doctor and be sure to get clearance to begin any new workout program if you have a persistent medical condition.