Fitness Articles

Using Exercise to Relieve Depression

Walk Away from the Blues

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The idea that regular exercise can improve symptoms of depression and anxiety is not new. Hippocrates was the first Western physician to prescribe this treatment 2,500 years ago, and doctors have been recommending it to their patients ever since. All the evidence accumulated by modern science says it works. If you suffer from major depression, exercise probably won’t be the only treatment you’ll need, but it will help along with your treatment plan. Whereas medication and counseling can take weeks to work, you can start feeling the positive effects of exercise right away.

Anti-depressant medications that affect levels of the brain chemicals serotonin and norepinephrine appear to reduce the negative feelings and thoughts associated with depression, as well as many of the physical symptoms, such as changes in appetite and sleep, fatigue, muscle tension, and soreness. But people react differently to medications, seeing changes in some areas but not others. Some don’t respond to these medications at all. Exercise can enhance the benefits of antidepressant medications, and even produce similar results.

Research shows that exercise:
  • Positively effects the same neurotransmitters that antidepressant medications target
  • Produces feel-good brain chemicals called “endorphins,” which promote the sense of well-being and satisfaction
  • Releases tension in muscles that contributes to depression-related soreness and insomnia
  • Reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol, relieving feelings of anxiety and agitation
  • Raises body temperature, which appears to have calming effects
In addition to these physiological benefits, exercise can promote the following psychological and emotional changes:
  • Distraction. One of the most debilitating effects of depression is that it causes you to focus on what’s wrong and dwell on the negative. Exercise compels you to focus on something else for a little while. With the right approach, it can help you find some pleasure in a sea of apparent troubles.
  • Confidence. The hopelessness, helplessness, and fatigue that come with depression often cause people to withdraw from normal activities and pursuits, leading to a loss of self-confidence. By setting and meeting a goal, like a small amount of exercise each day, you can begin to rebuild confidence and self-efficacy.
  • Self-respect. As people sink deeper into withdrawal and inactivity, they begin to feel useless and worthless, and may even come to despise themselves. They may resort to substance abuse or other self-destructive behaviors to manage these feelings. Exercise can provide a positive alternative to these negative coping strategies. Taking the time to do something positive to help yourself every day can help you reconnect with the part of yourself that wants to be healthy and productive.
But if you’re already depressed, exercising may be the last thing you want to do. You may feel fatigued and pessimistic, thinking that exercise won't be able to help you. These thoughts are normal for people with depression, part of the "mental battle" you'll face when considering a fitness program. Here's how to overcome them.
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About The Author

Dean Anderson Dean Anderson
Dean Anderson has master's degrees in human services (behavioral psychology/stress management) and liberal studies. His interest in healthy living began at the age of 50 when he confronted his own morbid obesity and health issues. He joined SparkPeople and lost 150 pounds and regained his health. Dean has earned a personal training certification from ACE and received training as a lifestyle and weight management consultant. See all of Dean's articles.

Member Comments

  • Thank you for the great article. I have taken medications for depression for years and the combination of them has made such a huge difference in the quality of my life. I know I will take them for the rest of my days. That said, I am also a firm believer in the power of exercise and its healing effects. For me, combining the two forms of treatment make life exuberant. - 9/30/2014 6:21:47 PM
  • Very nice article, depression is a very serious concern and it is necessary to treat depression as it has dangerous effects on mental and physical health.
    I have used Tranquilene to treat my depression and it worked for me. You can know more about this antidepressant here http://bit.ly/1C1
    Ifn0
    - 9/23/2014 7:52:30 AM
  • Thanks for sharing this coach Dean!
    And thanks everybody for sharing your story!
    It has helped me out a lot today and in the future too!
    :) - 9/10/2014 6:13:47 AM
  • I've been fighting depression since I was a teenager. When I was in my 30s, one of the other students in my master's program told me he had been taking antidepressants. I asked a bunch of questions and finally decided that I had suffered long enough, and trying to get rid of it just with natural means and counseling was just not working for me. (It's on both sides of my family, so a big part is likely genetic.) I went on Zoloft, and I've been fine ever since. Sure, exercise, life experience and a generally positive, calm attitude help a lot, too, so I'm trying to do all that in addition to the meds, but I'm realistic. In my case, it's a long-term medical condition, and I'm treating it just like I would any other condition.
    As an added bonus, I noticed I'm calmer. I used to have panic attacks a lot without realizing what they were, especially in a public place like a store - really silly, since I work with the public, but very real. Since I've been on the Zoloft, I haven't had anxiety problems, either.

    Bottom line: Do what works for you. Go ahead and try the exercise/counseli
    ng/healthy living approach, it does help, but if it's not enough, don't be afraid to add medication. It may take several tries to get the medication and the dosage right, so be patient. It's time the stigma of depression and other mental illnesses disappears. You'd never tell an asthmatic to just take a deep breath, but people routinely tell people with depression to just have a positive attitude. It takes more than that, so don't be afraid to get help. - 8/25/2014 8:53:41 AM
  • The Blues, a form of music. Howlin Wolf, Lazy Lester, BB King, Buddy Guy and the Queen of the Blues KoKo Taylor. Grew up on this music!! It is definitely what I listen to when I'm running, walking or just jammin around the house.

    To me, Blues has Nothing to do with depression!!!! - 11/25/2013 9:53:02 AM
  • Wild West Kate's comment was even more inspiring than the article. Thank you! - 10/29/2013 5:03:31 PM
  • KIWIBIKER
    While exercise does make a huge difference to my mood there's the counterproductive side if you are naturally competitive - I'm not as fast, have less stamina, less skilled than other people my age doing the same activity. Rather than being inspired by those who can do what I can't I get dispirited. I have to deliberately dumb down my activities so that I don't get overwhelmed by what I can't do - it helps if I'm on an equal footing with those around me. It's cheating but it seems to have a less negative effect. - 3/10/2013 1:39:38 AM
  • I will say that exercise did help me get through a MAJOR depression last winter. The problem is that it is hard to make yourself to it when deeply depressed. Heck, it's hard to brush my teeth when derpressed. Still, if I can manage to convince myself to do it, it really does help. - 1/30/2013 8:26:37 AM
  • Thank you. Concise information that is spot on. Just do it and you will feel better each time you do. Soreness will subside as you get stronger.
    - 9/5/2012 2:04:26 AM
  • Great article. I 'm a person that have to deal with mu depression and my son's and he is bipolar and other mental health condition. First what help me dealing with depression is my family. I don't get a lot of episodes of depression now. With my son it's very difficult to help him because he has others conditions. We try to do the best for him. I'm the one who give him the medications; but he tried to kill himself a lot of time and that is the real dealing.
    - 9/3/2012 3:58:20 PM
  • Good article, except for grammatical typo:
    "Depression causes you to dwell on how badly you feel"
    should be
    "how bad you feel"
    It's that you feel bad, not that you're bad at feeling. - 3/30/2011 7:24:15 PM
  • This article is very well written and points out all of the different levels that affect a person dealing with depression. I must say that your circle of friends and family need to support you through this difficult time. It does get better with time. - 12/27/2010 10:40:49 AM
  • Great article! As someone who has struggled with depression for most of my life, I know that every sentence in this article is dead on. I'm lucky enough to have a psychotherapist for a mom, and a good friend who is a psychiatrist. They have both helped me to treat my depression medically, mentally, emotionally and physically. I've recently started a walking routine with a neighbor, and have paid for yoga classes ahead of time so that I will be more motivated to go. One of the hardest things about depression is making yourself get up and do things. It really helps to have family and friends to support and encourage you. I'm now making a real effort to use exercise as a tool for mood enhancement. - 9/14/2010 12:24:16 PM
  • Thank you, Dean, for this excellent article. At last something which tells me something I haven't heard before about depression. I knew about the exercise but I had never thought of depression as being the enemy, a separate entity, not just me being grumpy. I do walk a lot but allow negative thoughts to take over far too often during those walks. Taking my camera has helped enormously - a diversion.

    Now I shall focus on defeating this monster. It's stolen my self respect and my joy in the things I used to love. It puts destructive words in my mind and mouth and has been winning for far too long. I am very good at covering it up to others and sometimes think I have a split personality: happy, capable public face, miserable, disorganised private face. Dean's article has made me realise that the latter isn't me, it's the monster taking over. Well, I'm glad to have this challenge (makes a change!) and will make sure I take my side in future.

    Good luck to everyone on this battle with depression.



    - 9/5/2010 3:43:13 AM
  • This article has made me think and given me a foothold. I will be on MY side from now on. Thanks! - 4/17/2010 8:20:27 AM
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