Nearly any type of physical fitness routine can improve psychological health. Research shows that exercise can provide relief from a more garden-variety case of the blues and from clinical depression. (In the second case, medication and therapy are typically the first-line treatment, but often are accompanied by the recommendation to exercise.)
What follows is a list of workouts that can help boost mood and outlook when you’re feeling down. The list below is not exhaustive, but we wanted to provide enough variation in fitness ideas to help readers get started. Before that, though, it’s important to understand both the benefits and limitations of working out, in association with mild and major depression…
It’s Not a Cure for Depression, but Exercise Does Enhance Psychological Health
Therapists and other healthcare providers are often asked by their patients if there’s an exercise that can target depression. As often as not, they provide a vague or open-ended response. They might say aerobics, jogging, swimming, cycling, or yoga. They might even suggest that their patients adopt any physical fitness routine that “makes them feel good.” A person who dislikes running might not get the same benefit from that exercise as one they enjoy more like rowing or swimming.
Fortunately, most forms of exercise can deliver a real mental health benefit just as they support physical health. But depression sufferers shouldn’t expect to snap out of their mild depression after a single session of working out. The key to experiencing the mental benefits of physical fitness is to adopt a workout routine. Moreover, once someone experiences the mood uplift that exercise provides, they’ll want to continue exercising because it can help them maintain their stable mood. While there may not be just one type of workout that can benefit a person’s mood, there are fortunately many.
What Effect Does Exercise Have on Depression?
Before delving into the effects of exercise on mood, it’s essential to understand the differences between a depressive slump and diagnosable depression. It can be helpful to think of mood as a kind of spectrum. Everyone typically experiences mild depression that could be termed a depressive slump. We are apt to experience a depressive slump after losing a job or experience considerable workplace stress. An auto fender bender, a pay cut, or any type of disappointment can trigger a mild bout of depression.
Intermediate forms of depression also occur with more serious life events like the loss of a loved one or a breakup. People may be able to work through these more serious or longer-lasting depressive episodes, but they may need medical assistance that can benefit the healing process. Severe, persistent depression is referred to as clinical depression. Doctors have many signs and symptoms to point to in order to make a diagnosis of depression.
Typically, a person who hasn’t “snapped” out of a depressive spell within two weeks could be diagnosed with an intermediate or severe form of depression. Signs and symptoms of major depression can include:
- Angry outbursts
- Feeling of sadness or hopelessness
- Fatigue and lack of energy
- Loss of interest in normal activities or activities that previously caused joy
- Sleep disturbances
- Loss of appetite or increased appetite
- Anxiety, agitation
- Difficulty focusing or concentrating
- Thoughts of suicide or suicide attempts
A person with clinical depression may not experience all of these, but they typically experience at least a few. In these situations, exercise may not be enough to help a person “snap” out of depression.
On the other hand, exercise can be a help to someone who is experiencing a less severe form of depression. When a person exercises, the body releases feel-good endorphins. These endorphins don’t discriminate between achy muscles or a bad mood. They flood the body and brain. This is why someone who has run a marathon and is experiencing some aches and pains may still claim to “feel great.” The endorphins promote physical healing of sore muscles but they also provide a feel-good benefit for the mind.
So, when a person is in a depressive slump, they can begin a course of exercise to take advantage of these feel-good endorphins. These endorphins have been said to trigger a “natural high.” Unfortunately, when someone has a depletion of mood-regulating chemicals in their brain and are suffering from a severe form of depression, these happy endorphins aren’t likely to be enough assistance to cure depression. Doctors may prescribe antidepressants but are also likely to recommend exercise once the individual feels up to it physically. Exercise can help a person maintain their balanced mood once they’re able to achieve it.
How Exercise and Depression Can Be a Catch 22
People who are mildly depressed often don’t feel like exercising or doing much of anything. That’s one of the hallmarks of depression. It zaps a person’s energy and motivation to do something that could actually help them self-treat their depression. This involves a kind of catch-22 situation. However, the longer a person goes without engaging in physical fitness, the more likely they’ll feel more depressed. After all, mild or intermediate depression are not stagnant. They can go in either of two directions; people can feel better in time or feel worse. In this sense, forcing oneself to engage in physical fitness activities can prevent depression from worsening.
Suggested Workouts for Depression
Physical fitness for enhancing the mood can take many different forms. Here it may be helpful to at first consider activities that are pleasurable. The “fun” element is important: If an activity is naturally appealing and enjoyable, a person is more likely to experience its feel-good benefits and keep doing the activity.
Take running, for example. Some people love it. Many people have experienced “the runner’s high” and swear by how great running is for the mood. And, indeed, research shows that running—or even just walking—can have antidepressant-like effects. One study compared running to psychotherapy and found it as effective for alleviating symptoms of depression.
Yet running isn’t for everyone. Some people have bad joints, while others find the same repetitive motion boring. Swimming laps is another activity that may fit in the same category. Some people love it, because it helps them get out of a funk and lift a negative mood; others find it tedious; it’s also possible that while a person may find running intolerable, they do enjoy swimming.
Notably, swimming in cold water relieves depression, according to a British case study reported by BBC News. The researchers attributed this outcome to “cross adaptation” to stress. Emerging science has linked depression to inflammation from chronic stress (a stress response). Immersion in cold water elicits a stress response that people can adapt to with repeated exposure to the same environment. The researchers theorized that through “cross adaptation,” cold water swimming could also reduce the chronic stress response (both the inflammation and the depression and anxiety related to it).
Cycling is good for emotional wellbeing and cognitive health, as evidenced by studies into its antidepressant effects, Psychology Today has reported. The same article suggested one reason may be that bicycling is often an outdoor activity, and any physical activity or form of getting active outdoors can lift spirits. Hiking is another outdoor fitness activity that many people—a lot of bloggers, for example—tout as a very real help for depression.
Studies also commend dancing the blues away. Why not take a dance class, for starters? Typically, dancing involves dancing with others, and this socialization is almost always therapeutic for depression. Moving to the flow and rhythm of the music (which itself can be therapeutic) can induce an almost meditative state. Being in the flow, getting out of one’s head—it’s often a feel-good effect.
Of course sports like basketball and soccer, among many others, can be good antidepressant outlets as well. The simple act of kicking a ball can make someone feel better. Working together on a team can improve brain health and connectivity.
In addition to physical activities that give pleasure, any number of things that involve “getting going” can be good for depression. In fact, any activity that gets a person off the couch and moving is good for the mood, the Mayo Clinic has said. Some examples: gardening, mowing the lawn, washing the car, or working on a home improvement project like staining the deck. For many of us, these activities sound like chores—but there’s even some antidepressant help from being active and the satisfaction of completing a job.
Any positive physical fitness routine that a person enjoys can improve feelings of depression. That leaves people with a lot of leeway as they consider what forms of exercise to incorporate into their daily or weekly routine.
Severe Depression Requires Treatment
Severe depression is diagnosable and treatable. People who experience any of the signs and symptoms outlined here should consult their healthcare provider if these symptoms persist beyond two weeks or become so severe that they are a health emergency (i.e. suicidal thoughts/suicide attempt). Once a case of depression has become clinical, it absolutely needs treatment.
In many cases, primary care physicians now prescribe antidepressants to individuals suffering from major depression. (These are usually the first line of treatment for someone presenting with severe depression.) They will also advise patients to begin therapy with a counselor or may refer them to meet with a psychologist or psychiatrist, depending on the severity of the situation. Antidepressants generally take a couple of weeks to improve a person’s mood. In the meantime, individuals who feel able should attempt to work out–even walking can provide some benefit. By the time the medications begin to work, a person could already have a helpful physical fitness routine in place. Taken together, medication, counseling, and physical fitness can lead to improvements in mood sooner rather than later.
If you are experiencing depression that persists beyond two weeks, contact FHE Health or your primary care physician. Depression is a serious mental health condition from which many people h.ave found relief, thanks to treatment