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Exercise and depression: we can work it out!

Good news. There’s a growing body of evidence indicating the positive effects of exercise on depression. The reasons that exercise helps depression are multifaceted, making some of the benefits harder to clinically quantify than others. However, the overriding consensus is that there is good evidence to indicate that exercise helps depression sufferers improve. Here’s why.

There are several types of depression, some easier to treat than others. Some depression is genetic, or biological, or it may stem from environmental or psychological factors. Regardless of what type of depression an individual suffers, any diagnosis of depression needs to be taken seriously.

The question “does exercise help depression?” can be a tough one to answer.

Clinically quantifying improvements in depression due to exercise can be complicated by a range of factors – for example, one of the key problems when researching seriously depressed people is that they don’t turn up to their sessions. There’s also the ‘grey area’ of whether the benefits that are measured are purely from the exercise, or from other side-effects of participating in the study. For example, a patient’s mood may start to lift through regular exercise sessions because it’s the only time of the day that the person is making positive contact with other people.

However, there is no denying that regular exercise can increase energy levels, often a problem for depressed individuals whose low energy can affect their socialisation, ability to work and other activities. Exercising also helps with other common problems suffered by people with depression such as improving sleep, providing a distraction from worries and rumination, and helping gain a sense of control and self-esteem – the person feels more empowered by their ability to take charge of their recovery.

Exercise also has multiple benefits for our health, so as well as improving medical conditions, relief from the symptoms of illness can help lift a person’s mood.

Exercise and depression: how much does it help?

  • There are a number of exercise and depression studies that indicate that moderate intensity exercise can be ample treatment for those suffering with mild to moderate depression.
  • Two trials have found that 16 weeks of regular exercise is as good as daily selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI antidepressant) medication for previously inactive adults suffering mild to moderate depression
  • Numerous studies have shown that regular exercisers tend to suffer less frequently from depression than those who do not exercise regularly.
  • It doesn’t matter what type of exercise you do, be it cardio exercises such as cycling, running or brisk walking, or weight training. All types have been found to be beneficial in treating the symptoms of depression.

Getting even more of a good thing

In terms of exercise and depression, it appears that the harder you exercise, the better the results in lifting your mood. US researcher Andrea Dunn carried out a controlled exercise and depression study that specifically limited the interaction between patients and staff so they could focus purely on exercise as the only intervention for depression.

All individuals in the study were clinically depressed. Some were put through a low level of exercise and experienced 20% complete clinical remission, while the high exercise group benefited from a 40% clinical remission, giving similar results to daily antidepressant medication.

What does high-level exercise mean? This high dose was referred to as the “public-health dose”, as it is in line with public-health recommendations. Essentially, it translated to approximately four hours of exercise per week, and less if you worked at an extremely high intensity.

Exercise and depression: it’s complicated

As we’ve mentioned, the problem with treating depressed patients is that they may not show up. Let’s be honest: many of us find it hard to adhere to an exercise regime at the best of times, so for those suffering depression, it’s that much harder.

photography on the floor objects for sports

Psychiatrist Dr Antonia Baum, is well familiar with the phenomenon of exercise for depression. In fact, she sometimes prescribes exercise instead of medication. She notes, however, that a lot depends on the individual’s attitude as well as their history with physical activity. If exercise was something that gave them a lot of joy or pride, it may be easier to get them going. But if positive exercise memories were lacking, combined with the fact that depression’s side-effects can include a lack of motivation and low energy, expecting someone to get out and exercise could be a tall order. It depends on the person’s perseverance levels.

“It can be partially attributed to being the type of person who can persevere with exercise,” she noted. “They can also persevere at overcoming depressive symptoms.”

Exercise and depression – a complicated but extremely positive match.

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Vicki Tuchtan

Vicki Tuchtan

Vicki Tuchtan is the Academic Director at Sage Institute of Education. She oversees learning processes, teaching outcomes, resources and course development. A passionate advocate for bettering standards of training in Australia, she is currently writing her PhD thesis on defining quality training in the Australian vocational education sector.
Vicki Tuchtan

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