7 Ways Exercise Can Help Fight Depression

Therapy and medication can help people manage the debilitating symptoms of depression. But these time-tested methods of healing work more quickly and more decisively when combined with health-promoting life habits, including regular exercise. Individuals who exercise every day to combat depression will increase their chances of long-term recovery, as long as they remain committed to their formal depression recovery programs.

When you exercise regularly, your chances of enjoying good positive life outcomes increase dramatically.

Exercise is strongly associated with sustainable mental and physical health, and that makes it one of the best self-help strategies you can employ if you’re working to overcome clinical depression.

While it’s not a cure for depression, exercise can play a vital role in any recovery regimen. Here’s how it can help:

#1 Exercise Can Reverse the Effects of Depression on Your Brain

If left untreated depression can produce some frightening changes in the brain. For example, it can cause shrinkage in areas that help regulate mood, including the hippocampus, thalamus, frontal cortex, and prefrontal cortex. This happens because the brain’s stress chemical, a hormone called cortisol, is produced in abundance when you are depressed. Excessive quantities of cortisol will inhibit neural functioning and can cause underutilized areas to shrink.

Fortunately, changes like these are reversible, and that is where exercise can have a huge impact. Exercise stimulates the growth of new nerve cells and nerve cell connections, which will regenerate brain functioning and help you get back to where you were before you became depressed. Vigorous exercise also helps by stimulating the release of endorphins, the brain chemicals that make you feel euphoric and energetic when you are engaged in a fun or healthy activity.

#2 Exercise Improves Sleep

Individuals who suffer from depression usually experience disrupted sleep routines. They may go to bed well after midnight and sleep until nearly noon. Or they may sleep little during the night, but lapse into a deep stupor two or three times over the course of the day. Such alterations in sleeping patterns are a form of insomnia that can be viewed as both a cause and effect of depression.

Regular exercise is a highly effective remedy for sleep deprivation and broken sleeping habits. Exercise sets off a cascade of effects in the body that will make you feel more tired and more relaxed in the evening, even if you finished exercising hours ago. It also reduces the likelihood of counterproductive daytime sleeping that interferes with nighttime rest.

#3 Exercise Gets You Out of the House

When people are depressed they come to rely on coping mechanisms that reinforce their low-energy, un-motivated states. One of the worst of these is staying home all the time, which is a response to the difficulties you might have finding the motivation to accomplish even the simplest tasks. While this approach my lighten your burden momentarily, it will eventually leave you feeling worse, because your isolation and inactivity will only deepen your sense that life is hopeless or meaningless.

Exercise is a fantastic remedy for this, because it will get you out of the house and out into a world that has much to offer that can boost your mood. Sunshine, fresh air, nature, and contact with other people are all helpful, as is vigorous physical activity that will stimulate your body to burn more calories and produce more energy. Exercise promotes vitality of body and mind, and the effect is magnified in a soothing and comfortable outdoor environment.

#4 Exercise Changes Your Mindset From Negative to Positive

Depression robs you of hope and keeps you trapped in a negative state of mind all the time. You don’t feel well to begin with, and your awareness of the reasons for your unhappiness can create a sense of hopelessness and despair that is even worse than the actual depression symptoms. It’s hard to be positive about the past, present, or future when you’re depressed, and that inability to generate contrary feelings puts the depression firmly in charge of your mental state.

By its very nature, exercise is a positive, life-affirming activity that will lift your mood. Completing an exercise routine always feels like an accomplishment, and it encourages you to think positively or optimistically about other areas of your life. This effect may wear off in a couple of hours after you’ve finished exercising, but the fact you felt better for just a little while will keep you coming back for more.

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#5 Exercise Is a Natural Energizer

When you have depression you’ll be chronically fatigued, without the energy you need to take charge of your illness and regain control over your emotional states. Exercise can be an excellent antidote to this lack of energy (it keeps you moving whether you feel like it or not), as long as you stick with your exercise routine once you begin.

Unfortunately, the chronic fatigue is an obstacle you’ll have to overcome if you hope to maintain an exercise routine. For the first two or three weeks you’ll likely have to push through the tiredness to make yourself get the exercise you need. But after you’ve been doing it for a while you’ll notice a sudden improvement in your energy level and mood, and at that point exercising won’t seem like such a struggle.

#6 Exercise Gives You an Excuse To Seek Out Human Companionship

Loneliness can deepen depression, yet those who are depressed often choose to isolate themselves. Because they lack the initiative to socialize they avoid people, but this response to depression only makes it worse.

While it is certainly possible to exercise alone, you’ll likely be more motivated to continue if you have others beside you encouraging you and inspiring you with their words and their effort. This type of companionship is conducive to more effective exercise, and it will also improve your mood and lessen your feelings of emptiness and loneliness.

Friendships built around exercise are action-oriented, so conversation will not be required for the most part. This means you’ll have the human companionship you need, but won’t be overwhelmed by social demands that could be stressful for someone battling depression.

#7 Exercise Lets You Set Goals That Are Exciting To Chase and Inspiring To Achieve

Depression will leave you feeling purposeless and without the motivation to do much of anything. Your inactivity then reinforces the emptiness, putting you on a fast track to a deeper and more long-lasting depressive state.

One of the best ways to counteract your psychological disempowerment is to pursue goals that are achievable and will leave you feeling better and more alive once they’ve been reached. Exercise is ideal for this, because when you’re just starting out you don’t have to do a lot to feel like you’re making progress. You can begin modestly, maybe spending 15-20 minutes a day doing exercise of mild-to-moderate intensity, gradually increasing the time and the intensity as you go. You’ll be able to create a series of milestones to guide your efforts, and as you reach and surpass each one you’ll undoubtedly notice your mood improving more and more.

The Transformative Trio: Exercise, Nutrition, and Treatment

Exercise is not a panacea. It won’t cure your depression all by itself, and in fact the benefits you experience from it may be limited if you don’t combine it with other health-restoring practices.

Those practices should certainly include good nutrition. When you replace junk or comfort foods with healthy items from the fruit, vegetable, legume, whole-grain, and other body-friendly categories, it will increase your energy levels, reduce the intensity of your stress responses, and help you preserve your emotional equilibrium. The combination of regular exercise and diet can have a transformative effect on the minds and bodies of anyone, including those who’ve been struggling with a mood disorder like depression.

The final piece of the puzzle can be found in professional care, which will usually include therapy supplemented by medication. Counseling for mental health disorders is highly effective when you’re dedicated to the process of recovery, and it can play a vital role in the restoration of healthy psychological and emotional states.

Holistic healing practices such as meditation, Tai Chi, yoga, biofeedback, acupuncture, art or music therapy, and so on could also be a part of your recovery regimen. These types of activities can help alleviate the symptoms of just about any type of ailment and are particularly potent as stress reducers.

The comprehensiveness of your recovery regimen can be adjusted to meet your needs as they evolve. At a particular stage recovery could involve anything from weekly outpatient therapy sessions to enrollment in a comprehensive residential treatment program for depression, developed and administered by trained experts at a licensed mental health facility.

Professional help for depression can help you make a dramatic recovery, as long you combine it with lifestyle choices that promote health and wellness in all of its aspects.