Is Exercise the Best Prescription for Depression?

Physical Health

Young woman smiling and exercising at the gym
There is plenty of research telling us that exercise can do wonderful things for people with depression.

Many studies show that people who exercise regularly have lower rates of depression. But can a little exercise really wipe out depression or is it just making it more manageable?

A study of 1.2 million American adults from data collected by the Centers for Disease Control found that people who exercised had 1.49 (43.2%) fewer days of poor mental health per month than those who didn’t exercise. 

How Does Exercise Help Depression?

Studies show you don’t need huge amounts of intense exercise to reap the benefits. One study showed that fifteen minutes of vigorous physical activity each day can reduce depression by 26%.

Any aerobic exercise that improves blood flow and oxygen to the brain releases endorphins, the feel-good chemicals in the brain. Endorphins work similarly to opioid pain relievers in that they produce ‘a high’ after being released. Research has shown that people with depression may have low endorphin levels.

Exercise is a safe way to increase endorphin levels that also improves your physical health. 

Another benefit of exercise is that it has none of the side effects some people experience when taking antidepressants. It has the added benefit of helping ward off chronic physical health conditions like heart disease, stroke and diabetes.  

What Type of Exercise Counts?

While doing any form of exercise is better for beating depression than doing nothing, research has found some types of physical activity are better than others.

One study found that team sports are best with a 22.3% reduction in mental health burden. It’s no surprise that combining exercise with social support has the best result. Being part of a team reduces loneliness and makes you feel socially included. The social pressure of not wanting to let your teammates down by not showing up for the game means you are more likely to commit to regular exercise.

The next best form of exercise for delivering mental health benefits is cycling with a 21.6% reduction in mental health burden. Riding a bike is an outdoor activity and a dose of sunlight can make the brain produce more of the mood-improving chemical, serotonin.

Aerobic and gym exercise was next with 20.1%. Mindfulness exercises such as yoga and tai chi also had greater benefits for people with depression because of the controlled breathing.

If the thought of undertaking a 30 minute block of exercise feels too gruelling you can try smaller intervals. Three blocks of 10 minutes can have the same benefits. 

Other Natural Antidepressants

Different treatments work for different people. It’s not just exercise that’s effective against depression. There are other steps people can take with exercise to give them their best chance at improving their mental health.

Set Achievable Goals 

Having goals and a daily routine helps with the feeling of achievement. A person can start with a small, fairly easy goal to achieve each day and increase as their confidence improves.

Make Sleep a Priority 

Often poor sleep and depression is a vicious cycle. Depression makes falling asleep and staying asleep hard and a lack of sleep makes depression worse.

Getting enough sleep at night is vital. You will find it easier to fall asleep by reducing the use of electronic devices before bed and going to bed at the same time each night. Exercise and sun exposure will also help restore your natural circadian rhythm which is your sleep-wake natural cycle and is very important to keep your mood balanced. 

Stay Connected

Going out to socialise can be difficult when you’re depressed, but being sociable can help turn things around. New experiences can also improve the level of the brain chemical dopamine, linked to pleasure and learning. If the idea of a social ‘event’ is too overwhelming, start small and try and catch up for coffee with a friend, or even go out to the supermarket, or mall, so that you are around other people as a first step. Build up from there and try and say ‘yes’ to social catch-ups, even when you don’t feel like it. Chances are, you will enjoy them once you are up and out.  

Medication Is Still Important

Exercise might make you feel good but it’s not a replacement for any medications your doctor has prescribed. Just because someone starts exercising, it’s no reason to stop taking medications. In fact, stopping some medication suddenly can be extremely harmful.

People who want to reduce or cut out medications should speak to their doctor about slowly reducing their dose. If you have any queries, speak to your health professional. 

Get Help to Get Started

If you would like to try exercising to improve your mental health but need some support, contact PeopleSense by Altius, some EAP contracts allow us to incorporate a tailored exercise program as part of your Employee Assistance offering. Call us to find out if you are eligible on 1300 307 912 or (08) 9388 9000, or contact us online.

Category: Physical Health