Can Exercise Help with Depression?

A pushup for a push up through the bad thoughts? Exercise as a way through depressive thoughts is nothing new but understanding why exercise helps with depression can help you structure your workouts in a way that better affects your mental health, while giving you a better idea of just what you need to do to trigger the positive effects of building up some sweat.

Studies have repeatedly shown 1 2 3 4 that a regular exercise program can have a tremendous effect on people with major depressive disorder – but not always. As a form of therapy, exercise has a success rate of roughly 60-70%, with success being a minimum of 50% reduction in the severity of the depression. Factors that might determine whether exercise will help you include the severity of the depression and genetics, and there’s no real way of knowing if it’s an effective therapeutic tool until you try it out. The effects of exercise are accumulative but also present quickly, whereas most anti-depressants take time to fully come into effect, making it a faster and much safer alternative to pharmacological therapy for people who struggle with medication, or simply don’t get much of an effect from using anti-depressant drugs.

It’s About More Than Sweat

The thing with exercise and depression is that while we know exercise has positive effects in people diagnosed with depression, we don’t know why. That being said, there are several plausible theories, and knowing them all can give some solid insight into what exercise actually brings to the table.

The first theory is pretty simple: higher core temperature makes us happier. To be more specific, the thermogenic effects of a serious workout leads to relaxation in the brain stem, and a reduction in tension. There are studies that tried to look at this further but discovered that while it did affect people with anxiety, it did not necessarily relieve depressive symptoms. That being said, the two are often linked, meaning the theory can still have merit and needs to be further researched.

Another theory involves endorphins, a family of neurotransmitters responsible in part for our sleeping cycle, appetite, mood regulation, and more. Endorphins are released after exercise – specifically beta-endorphins, which are a type of neurotransmitter very similar in structure and function to morphine and other opioids. These endorphins are mobilized to reinforce physical activity – because the body knows it needs to move – but also to help kickstart the recovery process after exercising.

However, researchers note that just because there’s more endorphins in the bloodstream after a workout doesn’t mean they all effectively increase the endorphin levels in the brain. The runner’s high, commonly attributed to endorphins, doesn’t seem to have much to do with the opioid nature of endorphins as it cannot be blocked by naloxone, a drug that disables the brain’s opioid receptors – meaning something other than endorphins may be responsible for making us feel good during and after aerobic exercise.

An alternative theory posits that what’s actually happening is that rather than just endorphins, the body is flushed with serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine and many other neurotransmitters after exercise. These also make us feel good and are even central to how anti-depressant medication usually works, and they’re unaffected by the blocking of opioid receptors.

Aside from the brain and its mysterious chemical ways, another way exercise might affect depressive symptoms is by distracting us from depressive thoughts. The distraction theory states that when you exercise, you’re pulling yourself away from worries and negative thoughts and instead thinking about your workout. Of course, exercise is different from other distractions in that it can actually help you produce positive thoughts rather than just helping you stray away from negative ones, making it about more than just the distraction.

Depression is also linked with other forms of physical illness, including obesity and chronic pain. Exercise not only has a positive effect on mood and thinking but can alleviate the pain associated with obesity by strengthening the muscles around the joints, while serving as a useful tool for pain management if done correctly under the supervision of a professional therapist. Another benefit to exercise is that it can help in weight loss if a major source of depressive thinking derives from body image issues – however, the absolute solution to this does not lie in getting thinner, but in tackling health issues and body image issues separately.

Self-loathing in people with obesity does not immediately disappear after losing weight but has to be treated as a part of a possible depressive disorder, thus requiring therapy to overcome. In other words: being overweight often leads to depression due to negative comments and bullying, which then manifests in various negative ways including self-esteem issues and eating disorders. Exercise and weight loss can help diminish the negative physical effects of obesity, but other forms of therapy and affirmation are needed to help eliminate body image issues and teach self-appreciation. Exercise may be intrinsically linked to this, because it boosts self-esteem and self-efficacy, two major factors in improving a person’s view of themselves and shutting down negative thoughts related to body dysmorphia and eating disorders.

Exercise and Self-Appreciation

While exercise may have a slew of positive physical effects, there is a significant psychological phenomenon to consider as well: self-love. But because I loathe the term, I’ll go with self-appreciation.

As mentioned previously, exercise bolsters self-appreciation through body image and self-efficacy. It helps to understand what all that actually means in order to see where I’m going with this: exercising frequently makes you better at exercising, especially if what you’re doing involves some form of skill, and this in turn makes you more confident in your abilities, which is referred to as self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is an incredibly useful therapeutic tool for both depression and other mental disorders, because it helps patients feel more confident in themselves based on their ability to do things well. Failure reinforces self-loathing and negative thinking but succeeding after failure elicits emotional growth and improves a person’s self-esteem – they like themselves better. This, in turn, is a form of self-appreciation. This reduces negative thinking and by consistently engaging in activities they’re good at and getting better at them, a patient can progressively combat negative thoughts with thoughts of positivity.

Couple that with body image. Exercise does improve a person’s physical strength and health, but it generally also makes them more attractive. Attractiveness is highly subjective, but there are a few objective things that make a person attractive, including their health and physical hygiene. Part of being healthy is engaging in regular exercise – this can improve muscle tone, keep the skin clear, and improves posture. It’s easy to understand why looking good can also feel very good.

The Dose Makes the Poison

Exercising can have a profound effect on people with major depressive disorder, or in people with other disorders and similar symptoms. Working out feels good. And more importantly, it should feel good. If it doesn’t, consider switching to a different type of workout. Not everyone enjoys running on a treadmill, or biking, so consider swimming, dancing, skipping rope, doing hill sprints, or workout circuits.

However, exercise does not always result in positive effects, and it can negatively impact you if you’re overdoing it. An athlete can look forward to a certain training day as a form of mental therapy in preparation for a stressful season, but injuries and overtraining can quickly turn an amazing tool for physical and mental conditioning into a source of major emotional pain and months of embitterment. Train often, but train responsibly. Speak with your doctor, find a professional or someone you know with an intense passion for your sport of interest, and approach everything with the knowledge that if you’re going to abuse your body, exercise will quickly go from a great way to help with depression to a quick way to put yourself in an even deeper hole.

Start, End, or Interrupt Your Day with Exercise

Contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t really matter when you work out, as long as you do it. Some days it’ll be better for you to consider working out in the morning, just because of the way your day is scheduled. At other times, finishing the day with a workout is a good idea too. Or, you could work out in the middle of the day, as an energizer.

There are pros and cons to every one of those ideas. Working out early might slightly boost your performance and energize you for the day. Doing your workout a little closer to lunchtime will help you beat the afternoon slog. Working out in the evening can help you build off stress and reach a level of physical exhaustion to hit the hay feeling accomplished.

However, you end up doing it, what matters most is that you work out regularly, several times a week. There will be days when you don’t want to, and that’s okay. There will be days when you work out less than usual, and that’s okay too. Simply get back to it as soon as you can and try and look deep within to tell the difference between days where you really should give yourself a break, and days where you need to push a little harder and force yourself to go and exercise.

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1724301/pdf/v035p00114.pdf
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC474733
  3. http://psycnet.apa.org/record/2000-16136-001
  4. https://journals.humankinetics.com/doi/abs/10.1123/japa.15.1.41