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Using Exercise to Relieve Depression

Walk Away from the Blues

-- By Dean Anderson, Fitness & Psychology Expert
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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

  • 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
  • I have dealing with chronic depression for 11 years. My goal is to cut down my medication for sleep and anxiety. I am going to start walking the dog and see what happens. Thannx for the support. - 2/18/2010 6:13:14 PM
  • KALAXSON
    I have been dealing with depression since I was a child and have been on anti-depressants for 13 years. I was diagnosed with major depression when I was 16 and shortly thereafter was put on medicine. It has always been a battle to stay on an exercise program but this year has been better than ever. With support from people online and keeping track of my exercise i've been more motivated to get out there. I also realized that I have to change my lifestyle in order to survive. I have a condition that in order to keep under control I have to make exercise my life. It has been hard but I am slowly getting off my medicine. I just want to see if I can do this with a more holistic approach. if anyone is interested there is a sight called AlternativeDepres
    sionTherapy.com which has some good insight on what you can do naturally. I wish my doctor talked about alternative ways I could heal myself, instead like most doctors I have met they just put you on pills which can help but don't solve everything.You also need to talk to someone, join a support group, journal, exercise, eat healthy. It has been a major battle but i have the tools to win. It's still really difficult but I won't give up. Fight for your life!!! take charge and tell yourself you can do this. It took me 13 years of fighting and you know what makes it easiest, exercise. - 1/16/2010 4:37:54 PM
  • The more I exercise, the better I feel. Anti depressants cause shocking insomnia. Exercise is THE BEST. Added advantage of getting fit & loosing weight. - 11/30/2009 4:21:01 AM
  • Right on target! I've been dealing with depression for 8 years and I know how discouraging it can be when people say "just go exercise!" They make it sound so simple, when it really is a huge internal battle. Dean Anderson does a great job expressing the difficulty involved with starting, as well as the benefits of exercising.

    Something that my current counselor has encouraged - and it really works - is to get dressed, get on your shoes, get in your car and drive to the gym. If, once you are parked and sitting in the parking lot, you still cannot fathom going in and exercising... then and only then are you allowed to turn around, go home and try again tomorrow.

    It works with everything. My dogs would be begging for a walk, and I'd follow my counselor's advice - as much as I did NOT want to go for a walk - I put on my walking clothes, tied my shoes, gathered up the dogs' things and by that time - I was not necessarily excited about the idea, but at least okay with it.

    So, the next time you would rather get in your pj's, cuddle up on the couch and not move until bedtime, try this advice. It may not work the first time, or the second and it might work great until the 30th time... but the key is to keep setting yourself up to succeed and be compassionate with yourself if you just cannot do it. Then - try again tomorrow. :-) - 10/19/2009 4:44:54 PM