Exercise, sounds like a dirty word doesn’t it? Especially if you are suffering from depression.  I know what you’re thinking – how can I think about exercise when all I want to do is crawl into bed and sleep?  Believe me I understand I have been there and still am at times. I fight daily to not let depression into the window of my soul.  

I have always been athletic – not an athlete but I love the feeling I get after a good workout.  Whether that’s a quick walk with my dogs, a swim or a vigorous ride on the recumbent bike.  I love it.  Don’t get me wrong many days I have to force myself out of the house. Some days I will go to a mall and walk.  On those days I get to window shop and be around other people.  I am getting my endorphins going and helping with my feelings of loneliness at the same time.  Win win! 

A study, published in the Archives of Internal Medicine in 1999, divided 156 men and women with depression into three groups. One group took part in an aerobic exercise program, another took the SSRI  (Zoloft), and a third did both. At the 16-week mark, depression had eased in all three groups. 

How does exercise relieve depression? For many years, experts have known that exercise enhances the action of endorphins, chemicals that circulate throughout the body. Endorphins improve natural immunity and reduce the perception of pain. They may also serve to improve mood.  Exercise also has these added benefits:

  • Releasing feel-good brain chemicals that may ease depression (neurotransmitters and endorphins)
  • Reducing immune system chemicals that can worsen depression
  • Increasing body temperature, which may have calming effects

Regular exercise has many psychological and emotional benefits, too. It can help you:

  • Gain confidence. Meeting exercise goals or challenges, can boost your self-confidence. Getting in shape can also make you feel better about your appearance.
  • Take your mind off worries. Exercise is a distraction that can get you away from the cycle of negative thoughts that feed anxiety and depression.
  • Get more social interaction. Exercise and physical activity may give you the chance to meet or socialize with others. Just exchanging a friendly smile or greeting as you walk around your neighborhood can help your mood and help lessen feelings of loneliness.
  • Cope in a healthy way. Doing something positive to manage anxiety or depression is a healthy coping strategy. Trying to feel better by drinking alcohol, dwelling on how badly you feel, or hoping anxiety or depression will go away on its own can lead to worsening symptoms.

Starting and sticking with an exercise routine or regular physical activity can be a challenge. The following steps can help you find and stick with an exercise program:

  • Identify what you enjoy doing. Figure out what type of physical activities you’re most likely to do, and think about when and how you’d be most likely to follow through. Doing what you enjoy helps you stick with it.
  • Get your mental health provider’s support. Talk to your doctor or other mental health provider for guidance and support.  It is always important to discuss any new exercise program with your doctor before you start.
  • Set reasonable goals. Think realistically about what you may be able to do and begin gradually.  Never set unrealistic goals that you’re unlikely to meet.
  • Don’t think of exercise or physical activity as a chore. It is better to look at your exercise or physical activity schedule the same way you look at your therapy sessions or medication — as one of the tools to help you get better.
  • Prepare for setbacks and obstacles. Give yourself credit for every step in the right direction. If you skip exercise one day, that doesn’t mean you can’t maintain an exercise routine and might as well quit. Stick with it!

If you are exercising regularly but anxiety or depression symptoms still interfere with your daily living, see your doctor or therapist. Exercise and physical activity are great ways to ease symptoms of anxiety or depression, but they aren’t a substitute for psychotherapy or medications.

With depression there is not one “fix” that fits all.  Since I have added regular exercise to my medication and therapy sessions I have definitely had more good days than bad.  I can only hope that it will do the same for you.