7 Tips for Exercising With Depression, According to Experts (Livestrong)

Posted: Mar 16, 2023 in In the News

This article originally appeared in Livestrong on March 16, 2023.


7 Tips for Exercising With Depression, According to Experts

By Karen Pallarito

Talk about a perfect example of a catch-22: Exercise has been shown, over numerous studies, to have a significantly beneficial effect on depression — yet research also indicates that depressive symptoms make it much tougher to exercise.

For example, a December 2016 study in ?Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica? looked at the effects of physical activity on depression in 36 countries, with nearly 179,000 participants, and found a strong association between depression and being sedentary. Similar research in a March 2018 issue of the ?Journal of Affective Disorders? noted this connection is associated with poor health outcomes, including increased risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

At the same time, research is increasingly highlighting the ways that exercise may not just help ease depression, but might also play a role in prevention.

An August 2019 study in ?Current Sports Medicine Reports? states that not everyone with depression responds to medication and psychological interventions — but there's plenty of evidence showing higher physical activity levels are effective for symptoms of depression, regardless of age or severity of the condition. And, a November 2019 study in ?Depression and Anxiety? found physical activity lowers the risk of depression even in those who're genetically predisposed to it or who've dealt with it in the past.

It sounds glib — and frankly, insulting to some degree — to suggest someone with depression should "just exercise to feel better," when it takes much more motivation than it would for someone who doesn't have the condition. After all, even if you don't have diagnosed depression but just feel mentally or emotionally spent, who feels like working out? It's all you can do to get through the day, let alone muster the energy to get up and exercise.

This might help: We're not talking triathlons or even high-intensity activity necessarily. Along with evidence that exercise can be beneficial on mood, there's also research indicating that it really doesn't take much to make that happen. As in, just a walk outside during lunch could have a profound effect, especially because it establishes a habit of regular physical activity. Here's a look at why, along with some tips to get you started.

When people start exercising, "even if just a bit," a number of things can happen, says Lisa Uebelacker, PhD, professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University's Alpert Medical School. For one thing, being active can boost your self-esteem, she says. It also helps people manage stress, lose weight, boost mental alertness and sleep better, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

That last one, improved sleep quality, is huge for addressing depression. A 2022 study in the ?Journal of Affective Disorders? suggest that both insufficient sleep and excessive sleep both increase the risk for depression. Another 2022 study, published in ?Epidemiology and Psychiatric Sciences,? suggests that difficulty sleeping is linked to higher prevalence of depression, and that association was true for all age groups. That means boosting sleep quality and hitting the sweet spot in terms of duration — about 7 to 9 hours per night — could ease depression symptoms.

In terms of how exercise improves mood overall, that involves a number of factors. Exercise has long been associated with the release of endorphins (the brain chemicals behind the euphoric feeling known as runner's high) and serotonin (aka the happy chemical), according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE).

There's also evidence that a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) may play a key role. BDNF helps brain cells grow and thrive and aids cell-to-cell communication in the brain, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. And Boston University researchers suspect it "may be a primary mechanism of the anti-depressive effects of exercise."




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