It’s a well-known fact that exercise helps prevent and improve a number of health problems, including high blood pressure, diabetes and arthritis. Did you know that regular physical activity also has benefits for your mental health? Exercise can help people with depression, and prevent them becoming depressed at all.
The link between anxiety, depression and exercise aren’t altogether clear, but training and other forms of physical activity can definitely ease symptoms of anxiety, depression and stress. Exercise may also help keep anxiety and depression from coming back once you’re feeling better.
How does exercise help depression and anxiety?
Exercise releases feel-good brain chemicals that may ease depression (neurotransmitters, endorphins and endocannabinoids)
Endorphins trigger a positive feeling in the body, similar to that of morphine. However, unlike with morphine, the activation of receptors by the body’s endorphins does not lead to addiction or dependence. Endorphins act as sedatives and analgesics, which diminish the perception of pain. The feeling that follows a run or workout is frequently described as “euphoric.” This feeling is commonly know as “runner’s high”.
Gain confidence. Meeting goals or challenges, even small ones, can boost your self-confidence. Getting in shape can also make you feel better about your appearance.
Take your mind off worries. Exercise is a distraction that can get you away from the cycle of negative thoughts that feed anxiety and depression.
It helps you cope in a healthy way. Doing something positive to manage anxiety or depression is a great coping strategy. Trying to feel better by drinking alcohol, dwelling on how badly you feel, or hoping anxiety or depression will go away on its own can lead to worsening symptoms.
Exercise improves self-esteem
Wards off anxiety
Exercise also has these added health benefits:
Strengthens your heart / Increases energy levels / Lowers blood pressure / Improves muscle tone and strength / Strengthens and builds bones / Reduces body fat / Improves overall appearance.
What are the options?
Research has shown that exercise is an effective but often under utilised management tool for mild to moderate depression. Any physical activity, not just conventional exercise programs, may help improve mood. Physical activity and exercise are not the same thing, but both are beneficial to your health.
- Physical activity is any activity that contracts muscles and expends energy and can include work or household or leisure activities.
- Exercise is a planned, structured and repetitive body movement done to improve or maintain physical fitness.
The word “exercise” may make you think of running laps around the gym. But exercise includes a wide range of activities that boost your activity level to help you feel better.
Jogging, lifting weights, playing tennis and other activities that get your heart pumping can help. But so can physical activity such as gardening, washing your car, walking around the block or engaging in other less intense activities. Any physical activity that gets you off the couch and moving can help improve your mood.
You don’t have to do all your exercise or other physical activity at once. Broaden how you think of exercise and find ways to add small amounts of physical activity throughout your day. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Park a little further away from work to fit in a short walk. Consider biking to work.
Some examples of moderate exercise include:
Biking / Dancing / Gardening / Golf (no carting) / Housework (sweeping, mopping, vacuuming) / Jogging at moderate pace / Low-impact aerobics / Tennis / Swimming / Walking / Yoga / Tai Chi
Because strong social support is important for those with depression, joining a group exercise class may be advantageous. Exercise with a close friend or partner. You will benefit from the activity and emotional comfort, knowing that others are supportive of you.
As long as you like it and you do it regularly, any type of exercise is useful. Make sure you enjoy it though, otherwise it will be difficult to find the motivation to do it on a regular basis. If you haven’t exercised for a while, gradually introduce physical activity into your daily routine.
Even a 15-minute walk can help you clear your mind and relax. Any exercise is better than none.
Exercise gives you back control of your body, and this is often the first step to feeling in control of your life. Have a chat with your health care provider before starting any vigorous program and if you have been sedentary for quite some time.
All the best!