Exercise Alone may Reduce Symptoms of Depression
Depression can be a weary vicious cycle. Although it is poorly understood by current medical science, it seems likely that the very low and persistent mood it causes is brought on by some or all of the following factors:
- Predisposition – that is, we inherit it from our parents
- Traumatic life events – not just the obvious ones like bereavement, illness and other losses, but even changes that seem good but can be very stressful, like getting a new job with more responsibility
- Illness – some diseases directly affect our brain and how we think, and can cause temporary or permanent mood swings or emotional problems
- Lifestyle and circumstances – being in a 'rut' or feeling trapped, or even just very simple minor vitamin deficiencies can affect our moods and make us feel very low.
So anyone can suffer from depression, at any age and for any (or seemingly no) reason.
But whilst you may be able to pinpoint a reason or starting point for your own depression, one thing is becoming clear from the growing mass of research into the treatment of depression: that for all people, no matter what form their depression takes, it is relieved by exercise.
But what kind of exercise? And how much? Depression can cause exhaustion and sleeplessness and many other symptoms that can make exercise difficult; and in many cases the depression itself has been brought on by an illness that might rule out strenuous exercise.
The good news is that exercise that is moderate according to individual circumstances and health is actually the best exercise for that person, both in terms of relieving depression and improving overall fitness levels.
Exercise, Depression, and Sleep Quality
Depression, tension and stress can all lead to disturbed sleeping patterns and insomnia. There are quite a few things you can try to improve on your sleep, or prevent nightmares, and get some better-quality rest, but for people who are suffering from depression, a research study showed that one of the simplest things was getting an appropriate level of exercise.
In the study, quite a complex formula was used to determine the precise amount of exercise each person needed, and if you want to go to an online exercise/calorie calculator to work out the exact amount you need taking your weight into consideration, the formula is 16 Kilocalories per week per kilogram of body weight. But I checked for a wide range of body weights from 8st (112lb, or 51kilograms) to 30st (420lb, or 191 kilograms) and for any weight I put in, it worked out at 14 miles a week – just 2 miles a day, at the fairly moderate average walking speed of 3 mph.
So it seems that walking for just over half an hour every day could at least resolve some of the broken sleep and insomnia problems associated with depression.
There are of course other possible factors, and mobility problems. Some medications can interfere with sleep, but if you believe that these are the cause of any depressive symptoms, the issues need to be discussed with your doctor, or possibly ask your healthcare worker to refer you to a sleep specialist if sleep is a major problem for you.
The Effect of Exercise on Mood and Severe Disorders
In several different trials, mood and capability were significantly improved in people undertaking an exercise session once or twice a week for several months.
These trials included a very wide spectrum of disorders associated with mood changes and depression, and both with and without immediately obvious underlying causes; from people with mild, moderate or severe depression for which there seemed to be no underlying disease, illness or other medical condition, to those with chronic diseases such as heart conditions or Alzheimer’s disease, to people diagnosed with schizophrenia and other poorly understood conditions such as bipolar or autism, that affect mental wellbeing.
But whether the people in these trials had an underlying condition or not, or whether they were young or old, or whether they had mobility problems, or chronic diseases, or whether their depression was relatively mild or major, every trial demonstrated that moderate, regular exercise significantly relieved the symptoms of depression.
So How To Start Exercise?
One thing that stands out is that all the exercise regimes in the trials were moderate and tailored to be suitable for the participants. Heart patients did not do the same amount of exercise as those in less risky categories, but still showed improvements and lessening of depressive symptoms.
If you have health limitations, or mobility problems, discuss with your doctor any concerns you have before you exercise. Basically, moderate exercise is exercise that doesn’t place too much strain on us, or tax us to our limits. For many people, a brisk walk once or twice a day for twenty minutes is ideal. For others, swimming might be the answer – and many public pools have supervised sessions for anyone who isn’t confident of their abilities in the water. For others, especially those who are elderly or have mobility issues, gentle (but very effective) tai chi classes with a qualified instructor may be the answer. For those who are a bit fitter and more adventurous, there are many other exercise routes you can explore, from martial arts to aerobics classes.
Aerobic Exercises or Non-Aerobic?
Most exercise is actually a mixture of these, but it appears that aerobic exercise like walking (or an aerobic-based substitute, if you have mobility issues) is the best to relieve depression. However, non-aerobic does have an important role to play since it builds and sculpts muscles, which adds to physical fitness and confidence levels. A half-hour walk every day and a beginner’s yoga session once or twice a week would be ideal for a person without underlying medical conditions; beginner’s tai chi or Callanetics™ might be better for those who need to start slowly or who need to tailor their exercise around health or movement limitations.
Links to Some of the Research Abstracts on Exercise and Depression
There are hundreds of abstracts on research into the effects of depression on PubMed, and I've listed and linked to a few of these below for any readers who want to know a bit more about the results.
How Soon Will You See A Difference?
The good news is that the vast majority of people feel better after just one bout of exercise. The bad news is that at first it is only temporary. To get lasting effects, changes need to be incorporated into your day-to-day life, and maintained for life.
This is one excellent and important reason to make your exercise moderate.
Most people could manage to take the stairs instead of the elevator, fit in a half-hour walk every day, and maybe a weekly swim; but few, if any, would really manage to keep up an extravagantly-planned regime involving running, yoga, gym sessions and myriad other exercises every day. Think long-term rather than gung-ho, and remember that all the gyms empty out in the last week of January for a reason – everyone loses the will to keep up their extraordinary New Year resolutions when their muscles begin to ache and the novelty wears off.