When you’re depressed, getting out of bed is a monumental task some mornings. Disinterest in activities, lack of energy, and aching muscles are all big obstacles screaming at you to just stay in bed. Depression urges us to turn inward and stay put. Exercise is probably the last thing on your mind.
But the benefits—both mental and physical—are huge if you can surpass these barriers (1). When you finish your workout, you experience an amazing feeling and mindset, and working out combats a lot of daily emotional challenges. It’s almost a chicken and egg dilemma because the same things stopping you from wanting to workout are the things that exercising helps to alleviate. Exercise changes your brain chemistry. If you simply want to change how you feel, lacing up your shoes to get moving is a terrific choice. Think about how good you’ll feel afterwards: instead of “It’s so tough to exercise without energy or willpower!” think “How often do I regret working out after I’m done? Almost never!” Once I convince myself of the truth behind this statement and put on my workout clothes, I’m ready to follow through.
It might help motivate you to know exactly how exercise works to alleviate depression (besides the long list of benefits that we all know).
A study from Duke University found that 16 weeks of exercise was equally effective as antidepressants in reducing major depressive disorder in patients (2). Research shows that 30 minutes or more of exercise per day for three to five days a week can significantly improve depression symptoms (3). Here’s how it works:
Endorphins, meaning “a morphine-like substance from the body,” are brain chemicals released by your body after physical exertion. These brain chemicals trigger feelings of euphoria, joy, and well-being. After your body does hard work, you’ll usually experience a rush of happiness, sharpened focus, and even insightful thinking. Research using PET scans shows that endorphin levels in the brain rise after exercise, and these released endorphins attach to parts of the brain commonly associated with emotions (4). This phenomenon is what accounts for the exercise “high” that many people experience after working out.
After a long run, I feel more connected to the world at large. I feel inspired to reach out and tell my loved ones I care about them. I am proud of the hard work I’ve done. That exercise “high” helps set a positive and energetic tone for the rest of my day. Those post-workout moments filled with endorphins can be bright spots in the dark.
With severe depression, you might feel like staying in bed all day. While it can feel comforting, it can also turn into negative overthinking that can spiral you into an even worse mood. Blocking out some time in the day to get out of the house and exercise according to a routine can make you feel better, because you do something productive and stick to a commitment.
Distraction can relieve depression by averting worries and depressing thoughts (5). Researchers compare exercise with other distracting activities such as relaxation, social contact, and health education (6). During a workout, you’ll be busy encouraging yourself to hit your goal, whatever it may be. Planning and working towards a long-term exercise goal, like a competition or race, is even better. Goal-setting serves as a great distraction, and a big event to look forward to gives tons of opportunities for setting milestones along the way—not to mention the big achievement at the end!
Getting out the door and moving is tough for everyone--but especially for people with depression. Yes, working out requires even more effort and commitment from people with depression, but the payoff is even greater in return. Despite the many obstacles, exercise is a game changer for your brain, literally altering your brain's chemical makeup to make you feel more clear-minded, more energized, and more joyful.
1. Fletcher, Gerald F., et al. Statement on Exercise: Benefits and Recommendations for Physical Activity Programs for All Americans. American Heart Association Journals, 1996. 94(4): p. 857-862. Fox, Kenneth R. The influence of physical activity on mental well-being. Public Health Nutrition, 1999. 2(3a): p. 411-418.
2. Blumenthal, JA. Effects of exercise training on older patients with major depression. NCBI, Arch Intern Med, 1999. 159(19): p. 2349-56.
3. Mayo Clinic, Depression and Anxiety: Exercise eases symptoms. 27 September 2017.
4. Boecker, Henning, et al., The Runner’s High: Opioidergic Mechanisms in the Human Brain. Cerebral Cortex, 2008. 18 (11): p. 2523-2531.
5. Leith, LM., Foundations of Exercise and Mental Health. Morgantown, WVa: Fitness Information Technology. 1994.
6. Craft LL, Perna FM. The Benefits of Exercise for the Clinically Depressed. Primary Care Companion to The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 2004. 6(3): p. 104-111.