Using exercise to overcome depression

In recent years a strong connection has been observed between physical activity and depression with multiple studies extoling the benefits of combining regular exercise with antidepressant medication, or replacing it completely.  As a result, exercise is now included in the American Psychiatric Association’s treatment recommendations (5).

“When you exercise, your body releases chemicals called endorphins. These endorphins interact with the receptors in your brain that reduce your perception of pain.” States the article ‘What are the psychological benefits of exercise with depression’ on WebMD reviewed by Joseph Goldberg, MD (1). “Endorphins also trigger a positive feeling in the body, similar to that of morphine. For example, the feeling that follows a run or workout is often described as ‘euphoric.’ That feeling, known as a ‘runner’s high,’ can be accompanied by a positive and energizing outlook on life.” (1)

That positive feeling alone can often be the catalyst that draws someone out of a depressive “funk” and, with consistency, steer them towards a more affirmative self-image overall. As expressed by renouned researcher Dr James Blumenthal in his landmark 1999 study published in the Journal of Biobehavioral Medicine, “One of the positive psychological benefits of systematic exercise is the development of a sense of personal mastery and positive self–regard, which we believe is likely to play some role in the depression–reducing effects of exercise.” (6)

In this study, 156 men and women with depression were divided into three groups. One group took part in an aerobic exercise program, another took the SSRI sertraline (Zoloft), and a third did both. At the 16-week mark, depression had eased in all three groups. About 60%–70% of the people in all three groups could no longer be classed as having major depression. In fact, group scores on two rating scales of depression were essentially the same.

A follow-up to that study found that exercise’s effects lasted longer than those of antidepressants. Researchers checked in with 133 of the original patients six months after the first study ended. They found that the people who exercised regularly after completing the study, regardless of which treatment they were on originally, were less likely to relapse into depression. (3)

In fact, in the medication only group, 38% of patients relapsed into depression; in the exercise and medication group, 31% of patients relapsed into depression; and in the exercise only group, only 8% of patients relapsed into depression.

What role can you play

Take the time to listen to your family members, friends and yourself. If you feel comfortable doing so, spark up a conversation with them about any of these observed or potential symptoms (10):

  • Irritability or frustration, even over small matters
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in normal activities
  • Insomnia or excessive sleeping
  • Changes in appetite — depression often causes decreased appetite and weight loss, but in some people it causes increased cravings for food and weight gain
  • Indecisiveness, distractibility and decreased concentration
  • Fatigue, tiredness and loss of energy — even small tasks may seem to require a lot of effort
  • Feelings of worthlessness or guilt, fixating on past failures or blaming yourself when things aren’t going right
  • Trouble thinking, concentrating, making decisions and remembering things
  • Frequent thoughts of death, dying or suicide
  • Crying spells for no apparent reason

Get moving!

In one 2005 study conducted by researchers at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, 30 minutes of moderately intense exercise five days a week reduced symptoms of depression by nearly half after 12 weeks (2).

As for intensity, researchers who published their findings in the Journal of Psychiatric Practice recommend achieving a heart rate of 50 to 85 per cent of maximum heart rate for aerobic exercise. And for resistance training, a variety of upper and lower body exercises is best with three sets of eight repetitions done at 80 per cent of the maximum weight that the person can lift at one time (4).

If you’d like a hand getting started, book yourself in for a complimentary Wellness Appointment with one of our trained coaches, sign up for a registered class or come in and chat with a member of our personal training team.
Geoff Starling
Strength & Conditioning Director
YMCA Eau Claire