A little exercise goes a long way to ease depression

Depression disturbs your sleep, reduces your energy, changes your appetite and causes body aches and increased pain perception. With all that, it’s no wonder people with depression have little motivation to be active, much less exercise regularly.

But the research is clear: exercise helps relieve depression.

What’s more, at least one study found exercise to be 1.5 times more effective than depression medication!

In many of the studies, the participants performed moderate to intense exercise for at least 30 minutes at a time multiple times a week. Anyone with depression will tell you that committing to that much intense exercise can seem overwhelming.

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Low to moderate activity is enough

Researchers at Anglia Ruskin University (ARU) in the United Kingdom conducted a review and analysis of seven global studies to examine the effect of physical activity on mental health.

“These conditions can be complex and necessitate a multi-pronged approach to treatment, which may encompass pharmacological interventions, psychotherapy and lifestyle changes,” says lead author Lee Smith, a professor of public health at ARU.

Their findings were promising…

First, they found there was indeed a particularly strong link between low and moderate physical activity and better mental health. Specifically, a 23 percent reduction was seen in depression risk and a 26 percent reduction in anxiety risk.

There was even an impact on more severe mental health conditions, including a reduction in psychosis/schizophrenia by 27 percent.

The researchers defined low and moderate physical activities as gardening, golfing and walking — activities that seem much easier to ease into.

Another perk about activities like these is that they get you out in the sun. In a different meta-analysis, the sunshine vitamin was found to ease depressive symptoms.

Interestingly, high-intensity exercise was not seen as helpful. Prof. Smith noted that high-intensity exercise may worsen stress-related responses in some individuals.

These results were consistent across the world, as well as across gender and age groups.

Smith says the results highlight the need for “precise exercise guidelines,” since “moderate exercise can improve mental health through biochemical reactions.”

“Acknowledging differences in people’s response to exercise is vital for effective mental health strategies, suggesting any activity recommendations should be tailored for the individual.”

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The key? Start small

According to Smith, the fact that even low to moderate levels of physical activity can benefit mental health is particularly important, since these levels of activity may be easier to achieve for people. They can make smaller lifestyle changes without feeling the need to commit to a high-intensity exercise program, he adds.

Dr. Adria Schmedthorst recommends starting with just five minutes a day of any activity you enjoy, from walking or cycling to golf, tennis, swimming or even gardening. The key is to just get your body moving. As you start to feel better, you’ll naturally increase the time you spend doing whatever activities you choose.

Bear in mind that this isn’t a one-time fix — it’s a long-term treatment plan. So don’t give up if after the first five-minute session you don’t feel any different. Keep plugging away and it won’t take long before you’re experiencing exercise’s mood-boosting benefits.

Here are just a few of the ways physical activity can help:

  • Interrupts the cycle of worries and negative thoughts that make you anxious and depressed
  • Releases feel-good endorphins and other natural brain chemicals, which increase the availability of critical anti-anxiety neurochemicals
  • Decreases muscle tension
  • Boosts resilience against reoccurring destructive emotions
  • Increases self-confidence and improves self-image

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Low intensity exercise linked to reduced depression — EurekAlert!

Physical activity and prevention of mental health complications: An umbrella review — Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews

Carolyn Gretton

By Carolyn Gretton

Carolyn Gretton is a freelance writer based in New Haven, CT who specializes in all aspects of health and wellness and is passionate about discovering the latest health breakthroughs and sharing them with others. She has worked with a wide range of companies in the alternative health space and has written for online and print publications like Dow Jones Newswires and the Philadelphia Inquirer.