As part of mental health awareness week we are looking at depression, and how exercise can help people cope and manage the condition.
Depression appears to be a growing global problem. Many suffer from depression without knowing it, which can be very harmful to long-term happiness and wellbeing. However, people who manage to get professional help and have their mental health checked by a therapist can learn to control and even cure depression. For those who do not have a therapist, there is a growing community offering self-help advice, as well as group meetings to discuss depression.
Many people suffering depression avoid seeking help because they believe that the only option is taking pills, but this is a misconception. Medication is not the only way to treat depression, as there are many other alternatives and complementary treatment options that you can try, from holistic ones to physical exercise.
The effect of exercising daily is what we’ll be looking at today. Engaging in physical movement leads to a series of biological processes that make you body work with you and not against you. Mental health always influences physical health and vice-versa, so you should take care of both. This article is going to present the influence of exercise in the life of people who struggle with depression.
How Depression Manifests
Depression can lead to a few physical effects that are seriously dangerous. Of course, not everybody reacts the same way so the symptoms may or may not affect your quality of life in a visible way.
The very first signs of depression include trouble concentrating; constant fatigue, regardless how much sleep you’ve had; a pessimist perception of life, feelings of helplessness; insomnia or sleeping too much (sleep disturbances); constant irritability, loss of interest in all activities that were previously enjoyed, are all common issues.
These are just the mild symptoms of depression, but soon the effects will get physical: aches and pains that won’t go away with any kind of meditation; digestive issues that don’t respond to treatment, appetite loss, and many others. Once depression starts to manifest at this level, physical movement can help. How? By alleviating the symptoms and allowing the you to enjoy life.
The Biological Explanation
How can physical movement alleviate the symptoms of depression? First of all, exercising produces a cascade of processes in the brain that lead to health benefits, both mental and physical. By exercising daily, you can protect yourself from many diseases, can improve the quality of sleep and lower blood pressure. In people who suffer from anxiety or depression, blood pressure tends to be high at all times.
The Feel-Good Chemical – Dopamine
Through exercising, especially intense exercising, the body starts to release more dopamine. The result is a state of well-being, sometimes called the runner’s high. The nerve cells are making new connections and that keeps the brain active and its function healthier. After an hour of intense physical movement, the symptoms of depression should be relieved.
Another interesting biological fact has to do with the hippocampus, the part of the brain which is responsible for the mood of a person. In depressed people, the hippocampus shrinks in size, lowering its functions. When engaging in physical activity, the cell growth is stimulated at the level of the hippocampus, bringing its functions back.
Health scientists are still learning about how exercise helps depression, but studies have shown that “people who did the most physical activity were less likely to get depression than those who did the least.” – NHS, April 25 2018.
If you need help with exercise, follow our weekly exercise routine or join a local fitness club or gym.
Building a Routine
This is a must to overcome depression entirely. By building a routine, the body will get used to at least 30 minutes of physical movement a day and it will start asking for it. A productive way to fill in time other than sinking in the negative thoughts caused by depression, exercising will help with regulating mood and being overall healthier.
Of course, treating depression symptoms with the help of physical movement is a long-term journey and it cannot be perceived as a one-time fix, where people expect to get better overnight. For instance, in ibogaine treatment centers people follow a strict routine that helps them overcome the situations they are in, whether it is about depression, PTSD or addiction. Following a routine each day will train the brain to act to potential triggers, will help both the mind and the body of a person to recover safely and patiently.
The only challenge is to get started. As in any other habit-building activity, the hardest step is to begin. Depression causes a lack of motivation, so this task might be even more difficult in this state. Considering the constant tiredness, the low energy and body pains, starting an exercise routine will involve some effort. The first workouts should be easy and short so that the body gets used to the idea of physical movement daily. As time goes by, both the intensity and the duration of exercising should be increased. There is no standard time frame that ensures the effectiveness of physical movement, but patience and consistency are the keys to mastering it.
There are not any downsides related to physical movement, but there is a slight risk of getting injured and having to take a break, which results in stepping away from your routine. People who have eating disorders should consult a doctor before starting a physical exercise routine, as well as athletes that should avoid overdoing their routine. Physical exercise is not recommended for people who suffer from several medical problems that interfere with effort.
Setting Smart Goals
Last, but not least, depression symptoms will only be alleviated if the goals set are realistic and smart. The goals should be clear and measurable, to keep motivation and momentum going. They should be achievable and relevant for specific situations, as each person is unique and reacts differently. More than that, the goals should be relevant for the person’s desires and requirements and time-based. Without a time limit, the goals won’t motivate the person.
Depression is a serious illness and if you feel that you may be suffering, please contact your doctor as soon as possible to discuss your feelings. Whatever the outcome of the consultation, take the opportunity to discuss exercise and gain their opinion also – they should be fully supportive and may even prescribe some exercises for you, depending on the quality of your health service. For more help and advice, seek both online and offline self-help communities.
Selected Scientific Research / Further Reading
- Management of depression in primary and secondary care. National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE), 2004.
- Faulkner G & Taylor AH (2012) Mental Health and Physical Activity: Editorial: translating theory and evidence into practice: what is the role of health professionals?
- Taylor AH & Faulkner, G (2008). Inaugural Editorial. Mental Health and Physical Activity, vol 1, issue 1, pages 1-8. A new academic journal with a specific focus on the relationship between physical activity and mental health.
- Thayer RE. Calm Energy: How people regulate mood with food and exercise. Oxford University Press, New York 2001.