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Exercise and Depression

Numerous studies have demonstrated the beneficial effects of exercise on mood in both depressed and healthy people. For severely depressed people, exercise has been shown to ease depressive symptoms when used with other therapies, such as antidepressant medications and psychotherapy.

One study of hospitalized depressed patients demonstrated that those who participated in an aerobic exercise program had significant reductions in their symptoms, compared with the group who participated in occupational therapy.

Some studies are showing that even regular exercise can help to prevent depression from occurring. A study of 10,201 Harvard graduates showed that the risk of depression was 27 percent lower for men who participated in sports for three or more hours each week. As physical activity decreased, the incidence of depression increased.

There are many theories about why exercise improves symptoms of depression:

  • Exercise contributes to a person’s sense of control over his/her life, leading to increased self-esteem.
  • Improving overall physical health, flexibility, strength, and weight may improve mental health.
  • Large muscle activity may help to release accumulated stress, frustration, and anger.
  • Exercise may have beneficial effects on neurochemicals in the brain. Exercise-related increases in the neurotransmitter, serotonin, and elevations in the chemicals called beta-endorphins (responsible for inducing euphoria and the "runner’s high") may reduce symptoms of depression.
  • Exercise can improve sleep patterns, which are known to have an aggravating effect on depression.

When adding exercise to your treatment plan for depression, keep the following in mind:

  • Your motivation level may be extremely low. If you can, start very slowly. Walking for a few minutes each day may be all you can handle. If you can’t make yourself exercise, don’t worry about it. You will feel more like moving when you begin to feel better.
  • Be realistic about what you can accomplish. Now is not the time to begin training for a marathon. Remember that exercise is a part of your treatment plan. It should not be used as a substitute for medical treatment.

Do those activities that you find pleasing. If you are up to it, join a group exercise class or a walking group. The social interaction may be beneficial. Remember, if you are not up to it, do not feel as though you have failed. You will be able to increase your physical activity as you feel better.