Depression can be helped by regular exercise. Physical activity causes brain pleasure centres to be stimulated and leads to feelings of wellbeing. Exercise can also be effective in the treatment for anxiety.
Regular exercise can be an effective way to prevent or manage mild anxiety and depression. Physical activity causes brain pleasure centres to be stimulated and leads to feelings of wellbeing. Some research studies indicate that regular exercise may be as effective as other treatments like medication to relieve milder depression. Generally, exercise has a place in treatment as part of a comprehensive approach to the illness.
While we all feel sad, moody or low from time to time, some people experience these feelings intensely, for long periods of time (weeks, months or even years) and sometimes without any apparent reason. Depression is more than just a low mood – it’s a serious condition that has an impact on both physical and mental health. One in five women and one in eight men will experience depression at some point in their lives.
Depression is a complicated condition, which can involve a number of contributing factors such as genes, environment, lifestyle, brain activity, psychology and personality.
Depression, health and heart attacks
On average, depressed people only exercise about half as much as people who aren’t depressed. This lack of cardiovascular fitness puts a depressed person at an increased risk of heart attack. It also seems that depression and exercise influence each other – a sedentary lifestyle increases the risk of depression and depression increases the likelihood of a sedentary lifestyle.
Exercise and depression study
One research study compared the effects of exercise and drug therapy in treating depression in older people. 156 men and women with depression were divided into three groups. Over 16 weeks, one group took antidepressants, the second group undertook an aerobic exercise program and the third group used both medications and exercise.
Selected results include:
- The participants in all three groups improved.
- The participants taking antidepressants improved the fastest.
- 68.8 per cent of participants in the combination group were no longer classified as clinically depressed after treatment.
- 60.4 per cent of participants in the exercise group were no longer classified as clinically depressed after treatment.
- 65.5 per cent in the medication group were no longer classified as clinically depressed after treatment.
Serotonin – the brain chemical
Serotonin is an important brain chemical (neurotransmitter) that contributes to a range of functions, including sleep and wake cycles, libido, appetite and mood. Serotonin has been linked to depression.
Some researchers have found that regular exercise, and the increase in physical fitness that results, alters serotonin levels in the brain and leads to improved mood and feelings of wellbeing. Some research indicates that regular exercise boosts body temperature, which may ease depression by influencing the brain chemicals.
Benefits of exercise
Apart from changes in brain activity, other things that may help explain the benefits of exercise include:
- The person experiences a boost to their self-esteem because they take an active role in their own recovery.
- Some forms of exercise, such as team sports, are also social events.
- Physical activity burns up stress chemicals, like adrenaline, which promotes a more relaxed state of mind.
- An enjoyable bout of exercise may be distracting enough to break the vicious cycle of pessimistic thinking.
- improved cardiovascular fitness
- reduced risk of premature death
- reduced cholesterol level
- reduced blood pressure
- maintenance of healthy weight
- improved muscle tone.
Before deciding on any exercise plan, consult with your doctor, especially if you haven’t exercised for some time. Some ways you can use exercise to help manage depression are:
- Choose a range of fun activities.
- Ask a family member or friend to be an exercise partner, as lack of motivation is one of the key characteristics of depression.
- Exercise two to five times per week.
- Make the length of each exercise session at least 30 minutes.
- Exercise at around 60 to 70 per cent of your maximum heart rate. To calculate your maximum heart rate, subtract your age from 220.
- Remember to thoroughly warm up and cool down.
- Try to live a more active lifestyle – walk instead of using the car for short trips, or use stairs instead of lifts and escalators when possible.
Where to get help
- Your doctor
- Your local community health centre
- beyondblue 24 hours 7 days a week helpline Tel. 1300 22 4636
- beyondblue support service - web chat.
- Lifeline Tel. 13 11 14
- Kids Helpline Tel. 1800 55 1800
- SANE Mental Health Information Line Tel. 1800 18 SANE (7263), weekdays 9 am to 5 pm
- SuicideLine Victoria Tel. 1300 651 251 – for counselling, crisis intervention, information and referral (24 hours, 7 days)
Things to remember
- Research suggests that regular exercise may be effective in preventing depression and also in treating mild depression.
- A sedentary lifestyle increases the risk of depression, and depression increases the likelihood of a sedentary lifestyle.
- Regular exercise alters brain chemistry and leads to improved mood and feelings of wellbeing.
- People who suffer from anxiety also improve when they exercise regularly.
You might also be interested in:
- Anxiety disorders.
- Depression - treatment and management.
- Depression and ageing.
- Physical activity - it's important.
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Fact sheet currently being reviewed.
Last reviewed: July 2012
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