Fighting Depression Naturally with Exercise

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Don’t expect a typical exercise article from Sad Runner. We’re not talking about six packs and getting beach body ready here. We’re talking about fighting depression naturally and using exercise as one of the tools in our toolbox against our illness.

By the time you finish reading, you’ll have a better understanding of how exercise alleviates the symptoms of depression, and you will have some actionable advice on how to get started.

Alright, let’s jump in.

How Exercise Helps Depression

Scientifically speaking, exercise gives your depression symptoms a one-two punch.

First, exercise get’s your endorphins going. Endorphins are your body’s built-in painkillers. These little cells of awesomeness are what your body releases when it gets stressed, or it is in pain. Here’s where it matters most to us: endorphins also serve to improve mood. The best part is you can generate an endless supply of these mood boosters just by exercising. You don’t need to buy stuff, drink stuff, talk to anybody or do anything else we would rather avoid when depressed. These endorphins are your’s for the taking because they are there for you on-demand. You just need to get your heart rate up a little bit, but more on that later.

The second punch that exercise throws at depression is with a big word you might have trouble pronouncing.

Norepinephrine is a chemical released from your sympathetic nervous system and, you guessed it, it’s another one of your body’s stress responders. Whenever your heart skips a beat, or your palms get sweaty because you’re nervous, that’s norepinephrine showing up to do its thing.

Scientists theorize that exercise stimulates norepinephrine in addition to endorphins which gives you a second neurotransmitter you have that you can activate on-demand.


The Early Days

We’ve studied the relationship between exercise and depression as far back as 1905. Unfortunately, a lot of the early research on the benefits exercise has on depression was spotty. Some of the sample sizes were too small, the subjects weren’t random enough, they didn’t even use a control group in some cases, whatever the reason, it just didn’t give us enough solid data on the subject. The evidence was there; it just wasn’t rock solid because of poor subject selection and methodology.

Over the years, testing practices evolved into the full trials we expect today all while clinicians, doctors, and scientist continued to study the link between exercise and depression. So, fortunately, we do have some meaningful data even if the studies are relatively newer by comparison.

The link between depression and lack of exercise

Observational studies have shown that depression is related to low levels of physical activity. Now, just because two things are connected doesn’t mean one causes the other or, in this case, lack of one causes the other.

Any one of us suffering from depression can argue what comes first, the lack of exercise or the depression. It’s a chicken vs. the egg situation. Depression makes us so exhausted that we can’t move so, of course, our activity level is going to be low. So yes, there’s going to be a link.

But, because there is ample data that supports the relationship between lack of exercise and depression, it doesn’t take long before some of us start to wonder if increasing activity lessens the symptoms.

Fighting Depression Naturally with Exercise

The Benefits of Exercise for Treating Depression

A 2013 study found that exercise is moderately more effective than the control intervention for reducing symptoms of depression. But before that, in 1998, Arizona State conducted a meta-analysis of previous trials and published their findings. The results showed what we all suspected, that exercise could have a significant impact on the lives of people with depression.

The evidence and testimonials begin to mount up from there.

“For patients with depression, in particular, those with mild or moderate depressive disorder, structured and supervised exercise can be an effective intervention that has a clinically significant impact on depressive symptoms.” -National Institute For Clinical Excellence

Some comparative studies have even revealed that exercise can be just as effective as medication or psychotherapy. Now, don’t ditch your meds and your therapist and go for a run. That’s not what we’re discussing. Exercise can be a treasured tool in your arsenal against depression, but it’s one of many. So take your meds and see the professionals in your life. But use exercise to make an even bigger impact in your fight.

One study discovered that 85 percent of people with mental health problems who used exercise as a treatment said they found it helpful, so there might be something to this.

The Side Benefits

One of the things people with depression don’t realize is that a lifestyle with no activity can lead to other diseases as well. There’s a laundry list of conditions that come from an exercise-free way of life, osteoporosis, heart disease and diabetes just to name a few.

So, if you’re not careful, as you age, your depression is going to cause other health problems for you. The good news is that exercise can help battle your depression while, at the same time, lessen your risk for all the other diseases. There’s really no downside to exercising.

“Exercise is one of the few forms of treatment that will hit several different disease targets all at once. More and more of my patients have five different conditions when they come to see me. They have diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, raised cholesterol, AND they’re depressed. By referring them for exercise, you can actually deal with all of those.” Professor Colin Bradshaw, General Practitioner

Further, depression is proven to slow parts of our brain function. Contrast that with the studies that have shown that exercise helps increase brain function and you start to see exercise as the undo button for your brain.

Less Negative Side Effects than Antidepressants

I once hallucinated and thought I killed myself because of Wellbutrin. I’ve never felt that way when I worked out. Bottom line, you’re not going to have the side-effects that you may experience with your meds. So there’s no downside to trying it.

No Stigma

I resent the stigma associated with taking antidepressants and going to therapy. But, as much as I hate it, I can’t deny that it exists. Exercise allows you to treat your depression in a way that’s free from judgment.

Get Your Power Back

So much of our illness leaves us feeling out of control and powerless. Exercise is one thing that you have that you can use to impact your depression. Take back control and use the power you have that you may just have forgotten.

Fighting Depression Naturally by Running

You’re Not Too Depressed to Exercise

Okay, so I already hear some of the excuses and one of them is that your depression is just way too bad for something as simple as exercising to make an impact. Well, you’re wrong. The studies I’m seeing reveal the opposite.

“Individuals who were moderately to severely depressed actually showed the greatest reduction in depression levels.”

You can’t be too depressed to get the benefits of exercise. If you can get your heart rate up, you’ll experience those perks no matter how bad your battle is. Just give it a try.

Fighting Depression Naturally with Exercise - Workout

Getting Started When You Lack Motivation

So you see how exercise can positively affect your depression, but you just don’t know where to begin. That’s okay; we’re going to ease in here and not get overwhelmed. We’re talking about exercise, not rocket science.

Start Small Stay Small

It’s too easy for us to freak out over something new and scary. We add too many demands on ourselves, and then we lose it when our expectations get blown. We’re not doing that this time. We’re going to start small and work toward consistency.

Now, in all the studies I’ve gone blind from reading, they all had two things in common. First, they all agreed that exercise is a good treatment for depression. But, second, they couldn’t figure out the minimum effective dose.

Finding the minimum effective dose is asking, ‘what’s the bare minimum we can get away with and still get a good result?’ Is it running 1 mile a week? Is it exercising 30 minutes a day? None of the studies could nail that down. They all concluded that exercise was good for depression, but they couldn’t figure out how much you had to do.

Some subjects exercised a lot; some exercised a little. Regardless, the majority all noted decreases in their depression symptoms. So the lesson here is that it doesn’t matter how much you move, just move.

Set small goals each week. It could be adding pushups or crunches to your daily habits. It could be finally training for that half-marathon. I’ve done both. I’ve trained for marathons, and I’ve done the bare minimum to exercise. Both have had significant impacts on my illness.

Don’t set goals too big. Start small and focus on doing it each week and making these things a habit. That habit is what is going to save you in the long run so set goals you can easily turn into habits.

Stop the All or Nothing Mindset

It took me twenty-eight years to finally figure this out. All or nothing is a crap way to live. You’re pretty much giving yourself a 50/50 shot at disappointment. So stop thinking you have to go to the gym every day this week to be a success.

Remember what I said in the beginning, this isn’t about abs and beach bodies; it’s about saving you from depression. If you only make it to the gym once a week because your depression keeps you indoors so much, that’s fine. Challenge yourself to get to the gym once a week every week for a month, then two months. Focus on being consistent. Once that gets easy, add a second day but don’t force it too early. Stay small but consistent.

Forgive Yourself

We both know your depression makes something as simple as exercise next to impossible. I know this whole idea of exercising to fight depression just seems like too much work. I get that. So, on the days when depression keeps you from working out, don’t hate yourself. Don’t treat yourself like a failure.

My entire life, exercise has been a chore I had to do to accomplish a goal. Until recently I never knew what it was like to go the gym and not be trying to lose weight. I didn’t know what it was like to go for a run and not be training for a race or some distance.

This year I’ve tried something different. I’ve focused on just making exercise part of my life for the long haul. It’s not about quick responses or results. It’s not about how I look in the mirror anymore. It’s about fighting my depression and staying healthy for my family and for the things I want to do in my life.

Don’t give up

When the picture gets bigger than just some vanity project like losing weight for a wedding, you start to see the bad days differently. The days your depression keeps you from working out are not days you’re a failure, they’re just days your depression was bad. If depression keeps you from going out on Monday, walk on Tuesday, who cares. Go for it on Wednesday instead. You’re not a failure you’re a fighter. So keep going.

[Tweet “You’re not a failure you’re a fighter. So keep going. #depression”]

I can’t say this enough; it’s a process. You’re not going to the gym or taking the dog for a walk so that you can be on the cover of a fitness magazine. You’re doing this so that you can live a better life despite your depression. So if you have a bad day or a bad workout or a bad month for that matter, move on. Let’s just keep going here.

This is not about quick results.

Fighting Depression Naturally with Exercise - Leg Lift

The Anti-Depression Savings Account

Think of exercise like a deposit to a savings account. Some days you might make deposits as planned and some days your depression might keep you from stopping by the ‘bank’ for another deposit. That’s fine, as long as you have enough deposits over time, when you need to make that emergency withdrawal, the money will be there. That’s how it is with exercise and your depression. Every time you get your heart rate up and get the neurotransmitters in your brain firing up, you’re getting your body built up with savings. Then, when your depression is at it’s worst, you’ll find you can get through it easier, and you won’t see why. It’s because you’ve made all those deposits over time.

Choosing to treat depression naturally with exercise is one of the smartest things you can do. When you add some physical activity to your life, there’s no downside. It decreases your risk for other diseases while, at the same time, decreases your depression. What’s to lose?

So, before we finish, let’s do one last thing. Pick some activity you will do in the next five days to get your heart rate up. It doesn’t have to be for a long time. Just pick some activity and commit to doing it. That’s all you need to get started.

Adam Weitz
Adam Weitz

Adam Weitz is a multi-discipline designer, business owner, and founder of Sad Runner. He is passionate about encouraging people with depression and works through Sad Runner to positively impact their lives.