Physical activity can have all sorts of beneficial effects. It may even help those 10 percent of American adults who have been diagnosed with depression.
Research has suggested that:
- Active people are less depressed than inactive people are.
- Regular exercise may prevent mild to moderate depression from coming back or help keep it controlled over time.
- Regular exercise may improve a person's outlook. It offers a sense of competence and achievement. It can diminish the impact of stress. It may help take your mind off your troubles and improve your sleep.
Exercise and mood: what's the connection?
Some studies have found that exercise can improve symptoms of mild depression. But the effects can take longer than with antidepressant medications. And exercise may not have long-term benefits in more severe cases of depression.
One theory of research suggests that when you exercise, you increase the level of serotonin in the brain. Serotonin is a chemical that affects mood, sleep, appetite and sex drive. Depression has been linked to low levels of serotonin. Exercise also is believed to stimulate the production of endorphins, the brain's "feel-good" chemicals. Other theories suggest beneficial changes and responses to other hormones in the body.
Depression and the exercise challenge
Exercise may help lift your mood, a good reason all by itself to stay motivated. People with depression or other mental illnesses have another reason to get off the couch and get going. Studies show that if you have a mental illness, there is a good chance you are at higher risk for heart disease. Risk factors for heart disease include obesity, cigarette smoking, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and diabetes. We can have a positive impact on these risk factors by exercising.
Take the first steps
If you suspect you might be suffering from depression, it's important for you to be diagnosed, so you can get the care you need.
Talk with your doctor before starting a new exercise routine. Your doctor can advise you regarding what type of exercises are best for you and what level of intensity to pursue. Next, try these strategies to help you get started and be successful:
- Pick an activity you like. You're more likely to stick with it if you enjoy it. Do you like to walk? Jog? Bike? Dance? Swim? Take a class?
- Ask a friend to join you.
- Start slowly. You have a better chance of continuing a moderate plan than if you jump into a strenuous program. Working out too hard actually can postpone the mood lift that often follows an exercise session. That mood-boost is rewarding, and without it, your motivation can be weakened.
- Cut yourself some slack. There may be days you just don't feel up to exercising. If you miss a day or can only do 10 minutes, that's fine. Just get back on track the next day.
- Remember the benefits. Physical activity may help improve your mood, and it can also strengthen your heart and bones, help control your weight and cut your risk for many diseases. Each time you exercise, you're doing something positive for your health.
Note: If you have thoughts of hurting yourself or others, call your health care professional, 911 or a suicide hotline such as 1-800-SUICIDE (1-800-784-2433) or have someone drive you to your nearest emergency department.
If you feel that you are in immediate danger of hurting yourself or someone else, CALL 911 or your local emergency services immediately.
If you are physically inactive or you have a health condition such as arthritis, diabetes, heart disease, pregnancy or other symptoms, check with your doctor before starting an exercise program or increasing your activity level. He or she can tell you what types and amounts of activities are safe and suitable for you.
Created on 11/02/2004
Updated on 09/10/2013
- UpToDate. Patient information: Depression treatment options for adults (beyond the basics).
- American Psychological Association. The exercise effect.
- National Alliance on Mental Illness. Treating major depression.