Working Through Depression with Exercise

Using Your Body to Boost Your Mood

exercise to boost your mood
Among all of the benefits of exercise, did you know that exercise is often a natural cure for depression? It’s one of the most common motivators for exercising—wanting to feel better, to be more confident, think more positively, to be able to better cope with life’s everyday problems, and generally have a happier outlook on life.

Sure you can take anti-depressant medication, talk with a therapist or coach, or connect up to electroshock therapy…but a healthy alternate to these is to get active. This alternative solution or simply wise addition could include activities such as: hitting the trail, hiring a trainer, joining a gym, a full-body workout on a Total Gym, or joining a group ex program like Les Mills, Zumba, or a Pilates, Yoga or spin class.

I’m not really certain why mental health and medical professionals have been slow to grasp the value of exercise in overall wellbeing. It’s not “hokus-pokus.” There’s hard data and randomized controlled research that indicates that the mood-exercise connection is real. Reviewing studies dating back to 1981 concludes that consistent exercise can effectively relieve mild to moderate depression, as well as help with those suffering with more severe depression.

While this is not the place to review all of that evidence, one study reported in Psychosomatic Medicine in 2007 by James Blumenthal, Ph.D. of Duke University, found that exercise was generally comparable to antidepressant medications for patients with major depression. In a one-year follow-up, reported in Psychosomatic Medicine in 2010, Blumenthal reported that those subjects who exercised regularly had lower depression than did those who were less active. He summarized his thoughts by suggesting that exercise was not only important in treating depression, but in preventing relapse as well.

Just how this happens, and what it does for the body, is now becoming well understood. Exercise alters brain chemistry by modifying neurotransmitters, serotonin, and norepinephrine, just as antidepressant medications do.

One widely accepted idea is that physical activity, especially in the range of 150 minutes per week of moderate to intense activity (even broken up into 10-20 minute sessions), increases neurotransmitters, galanin, endorphins and norepinephrine including serotonin and brain-derived neurotrophic factor and reduces cortisol, as well as normalizes sleep. These “feel-good” chemicals promote clarity, euphoria, and are protective against stress in response to new situations. This also helps to diminish the perception of pain, and builds happiness and self-esteem—all safely without fear of addiction or negative side-effects. Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) repairs brain atrophy and helps grow brain cells—all important in lifting depression.

Depression relief can also be found in the depression-fitness connection by providing a genuine sense of positive goal accomplishment. This leaves people who exercise regularly, alone or with others, feeling more self-confident, better able to interact with others, less anxious about the future and better able to cope with life in a positive way. There is a more natural positive self-image, affirmations, gratitude and the ability to see positive outcomes from exercise.

Now, if you are already taking anti-depressant medication don’t give it up. You may need it. Speak with your doctor and a certified personal trainer/health coach to understand the role that exercise can play with your level and type of depression. If it’s not the entire natural answer, safe and properly supervised exercise is surely an important part of most treatment programs for depression. At the very least, it’s free and when properly done, has little or no negative side-effects. Like chicken soup, it can’t hurt.

How does working out and staying active make you feel? Share your story in the comments!

Check out the articles on Total Gym Pulse for more articles about feeling great, and living a healthier life.

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Dr. Michael Mantell

Michael R. Mantell, Ph.D. has been providing psychological and coaching services for nearly 5 decades and continues to empower positive change among his global clients to enhance life in every way. He is a highly sought-after healthcare professional coach, an executive and team building consultant, and a longtime specialist in cognitive behavioral coaching.

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