The benefits of working out aren’t just physical – exercise can also stave off sadness and boost your mood when you’re battling depression. So why does moving your body help your brain and what are the best ways to make use of this powerful, natural antidepressant? Learn now...
If you’re depressed, the first step is to see your doctor or a psychologist to start treatment with talk therapy and/or medication.
But more mental-health professionals are prescribing exercise too.
For women with severe depression, physical activity can boost the effectiveness of antidepressant medication, says Danine Fruge, M.D., director of women’s health and family medicine at the Pritikin Longevity Institute & Spa in Miami.
And in some instances, “a woman with mild to moderate depression can control symptoms with exercise,” she adds.
The reason: Exercise improves brain chemistry and can help people with depression re-establish healthy behaviors, according to an April 2010 analysis of dozens of studies on the topic by the Anxiety Research & Treatment Program at Southern Methodist University.As a result, “people who exercise report fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression,” says Jasper Smits, Ph.D., study leader and co-director of the program.
Starting an effective exercise program is as simple as walking out your front door.
“It’s free – or very low-cost, relatively easy and a lot of fun,” Dr. Fruge says.
“Just about everyone has a pair of shoes and, in most cases, that’s all you need to start some form of exercise.”
Read on to see how a little physical activity can elevate your mood, fight off fatigue and reduce anxiety.
Why Moving Your Body Helps Your Brain
Working out sets off a chemical reaction in the brain that’s good for anyone – depressed or not.“When you exercise, your brain instantly revs up production of endorphins – chemicals that help elevate mood, improve brain function and concentration, and give an overall sense of well-being,” Dr. Fruge says.
That’s why you end a gym workout or long walk happier than when you started, with a feeling of being “good tired.”
Staying active also balances cortisol, a steroid hormone produced under stress that creates the fight-or-flight feeling, Dr. Fruge says.
Reducing cortisol levels helps prevent an anxiety attack and stabilizes mood.
If you exercise regularly, the emotional benefits become long-term, Dr. Fruge says:
“Physical activity can produce chemical changes in the brain that lead to the eventual ‘rewriting’ of memory, which makes an event seem less traumatic. So you feel less drained, depressed or sad.”Staying fit can also stave off side effects – both from depression and antidepressant medications – such as weight gain.
If you’re comfort-eating, exercise can curb weight gain and the compulsion to overeat, Dr. Fruge says.
You don’t have to run marathons or spend hours a day in the gym to get the mood-boosting benefits.
“Even moderate aerobic exercise 3-4 times a week will produce a pronounced effect in a relatively short time,” says psychiatrist Robert L. Pyles, M.D., a clinical instructor at Harvard Medical School and president-elect of the American Psychoanalytic Association.
The types of movements you choose target different depression issues, he says.
A long, peaceful walk can relieve stress and recharge mental batteries.
Free weights maintain muscle tone, enhancing appearance and leading to a greater feeling of well-being.
Short, intense workouts – 30 minutes of exercising at a level that gets you breathing hard – help release pain-inhibiting endorphins quickly, immediately enhancing your mood.
For the greatest overall benefit, Dr. Pyles recommends alternating aerobic workouts with weight training. Here’s his recommendation for an ideal workout regime:
- Every other day, walk slowly on a treadmill for 90 seconds, then ramp up the speed to a rapid but tolerable level and run for 30-45 seconds. Continue to alternate that pattern for 30-45 minutes.
- On the other days, lift light free weights.
To avoid burnout, start slow and work your way up.
And don’t try to do more than you’re willing to accomplish on a regular basis.
No matter what kind of exercise you do, be consistent, Dr. Pyles adds.
“That’s what will keep your brain’s production of mood-altering chemicals balanced.”
Also, keep in mind that any amount of activity helps. “Just moving is the biggest goal,” Dr. Fruge says. How to Get Started
Motivating yourself to exercise can be a struggle, especially if you’re depressed.
Here are Dr. Fruge’s tips to jumpstart an exercise routine:
- Make it enjoyable.Don't exercise alone: Ask a friend to join you on a power walk through a park or around a mall. Incorporating some social activity makes exercising more fun.
- Mix it up.It’s easy to get bored walking the same route every day or running on a treadmill. Alternate routes, cross-train on different exercise machines, listen to a variety of music and even wear different colors of clothing.
- Set a reminder.If you want to work out in the morning, lay out workout clothes and shoes before going to bed. When you wake, you’ll see the reminder and will have overcome one obstacle to working out.
- Be accountable.Ask a friend or family member to track your exercise schedule and check in once a week for progress updates, to discuss any obstacles and offer kudos when you’ve hit an exercise milestone.
- Go easy on yourself.Berating yourself over a missed workout or shortened routine will only make you feel worse. Instead, remind yourself of how often in the past month you did work out, and use those successes to stay motivated.
- Reward yourself.Set obtainable workout goals. For example, if you follow your exercise plan for a week, treat yourself to a massage, movie or new workout gear. Earning treats through hard work will boost your confidence even more.
- Focus on immediate benefits.Waiting for long-term rewards of exercise – such as major weight loss or improved cardiovascular fitness – is a challenge, especially if you’re depressed. Instead, focus on improvements you notice right away, such as a better mood, less stress and more energy.
Foods for Fitness
A healthy diet increases the effectiveness of your exercise plan.
Fuel your body before workouts – and replenish afterward – with foods that won’t sap energy or counter the good-mood effects you’re getting. Stay away from the morning bagel or fast-food burger on the way to the gym.
“Foods high in simple sugars and fat tend to make us sluggish,” Dr. Fruge says. “They don’t give the brain the building blocks to make ‘feel-good’ chemicals.”
If you’re already fatigued from depression, that added dose of food-related doldrums can really run you down.
For healthy ideas, check out The Best Breakfasts for Weight Loss.
Choose produce and lean protein throughout the day to maintain energy levels.
Fruits and vegetables have complex carbohydrates, which help your brain work at optimum levels.“That includes managing chemicals and hormones associated with mood and depression,” Dr. Pyles says.
Learn more about hormone-triggered depression and how to manage it.
Check with your doctor before implementing a new exercise plan. He or she can help you establish a routine that’s tailored to your needs and abilities.
For more information, visit our Depression Health Center.
What’s Your Fitness Style?
Some people find it easy to wake up at 4:30 a.m. and go for a five-mile run, while others simply hit the snooze button. Aspects of your personality determine the kind of exerciser you are, so if you're in a fitness rut, it's time to put your unique interests back into the workout equation. Take this quiz to find out what types of exercise are right for you.