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Can Exercise Treat Depression?


By Karen Tucker

Everybody knows that exercise is good for you. Regular exercise not only helps you look and feel better, but it can reduce your risk for developing health problems such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes. Improved physical health isn’t the only benefit of exercise. A large number of recent studies are showing that exercise may also be very effective in combating some mental health issues like depression.

Depression is a serious condition that is quite common, especially among women. It is estimated that about one in every eight women will suffer from depression at some point in their lives. In addition, it has been ranked as the leading cause of disability in the United States and is the number-one contributor to suicide, according to the National Institute for Mental Health. Clinical depression is characterized by a combination of symptoms that interfere with a person’s ability to work, sleep, eat, and enjoy life. Depression is far more than feeling “down in the dumps.” People can’t just “snap out of it” and it doesn’t just go away. The following are some of the signs and symptoms of depression:

  • Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” feelings
  • Feelings of hopelessness or pessimism
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness
  • Loss of interest in activities or hobbies once pleasurable, including sex
  • Fatigue and decreased energy
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering details, and making decisions
  • Sleep disturbances — either excessive sleeping or less sleeping
  • Appetite and weight changes
  • Thoughts of suicide, suicide attempts

People with depression should seek help from their doctor. The most common treatments are medication (anti-depressants) and talk therapy (psychotherapy). However, there is strong evidence that exercise is a potentially powerful adjunct to these existing treatments. According to a review by the National Institutes of Health, “exercise appears to be an effective treatment for depression, improving depressive symptoms to a comparable extent as pharmacotherapy and psychotherapy. Observational studies suggest that active people are less likely to be depressed, and interventional studies suggest that exercise is beneficial in reducing depression. It appears that even modest levels of exercise are associated with improvements in depression, and while most studies to date have focused on aerobic exercise, several studies also have found evidence that resistance training also may be effective. While the optimal “dose” of exercise is unknown, clearly any exercise is better than no exercise. Getting patients to initiate exercise — and sustain it — is critical.”

Fitting a fitness routine into their lives is typically a challenge for the general population, but depressed people may find it especially difficult to start and maintain an exercise routine. Motivation for exercise may be affected by depressive symptoms such as fatigue, indecisiveness, low self-esteem, loss of interest and pleasure, and poor sleep. Joining a fitness class or working with a certified personal trainer is a great way to get started and is particularly beneficial for women with depression because of the social interaction. Exercising in a gym environment offers the chance to meet other people and the personal connection and social support has proven to increase the chances of success for all women.

While physicians and mental health professionals don’t usually “prescribe” exercise to treat depression, the effectiveness of exercise in alleviating and decreasing symptoms of depression has been well established. The exact mechanisms underlying the antidepressant effects of exercise remain in debate; however, we know that vigorous exercise provides a path to better health and is a great way to deal with life’s challenges.