You know regular exercise is great for your physical well-being, because it can help reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and arthritis, and it lowers cholesterol and high blood pressure. But did you know that physical activity can also improve your mood and mental health? Studies have shown that regular exercise can improve the mood of people with mild to moderate depression, and may play a supporting role in helping people with severe depression. What’s more, exercise may also help keep anxiety and depression from coming back once you feel better.
Depression affects nearly 19 million adults each year, roughly seven of every 100 people over the age of 18. Most people feel sad, blue, unhappy or even miserable at some point or another. True clinical depression, however, is characterized as persistent feelings of sadness, loss, anger or frustration that interferes with everyday life for weeks or months at a time. The exact cause of depression is unknown, but some researchers believe it is due to a chemical imbalance in the brain due to genetics or triggered by a stressful event. Substance abuse, certain medical conditions such as thyroid problems or cancer, and traumatic events or loss – i.e. death of a loved one, divorce or physical or emotional abuse – can trigger a depressive episode.
Depression distorts the way you see yourself, your life and those around you. The symptoms of depression can include feelings of worthlessness, self-hate, and guilt; loss of interest or pleasure; persistent fatigue and lack of energy; agitation, restlessness, and irritability; and thoughts of death or suicide. Depression can also appear as anger and discouragement; severe depression can trigger hallucinations or psychotic episodes.
While the link between anxiety, depression and exercise is not entirely clear, experts believe that regular exercise enhances the actions of endorphins, the feel-good chemical that circulates throughout the body. Endorphins boost natural immunity and reduce the perception of pain. Exercise also raises body temperature, which can have a calming effect.
Regular exercise has other mood-boosting benefits as well. Exercise improves confidence levels as you meet fitness goals or challenges; getting in shape can make you feel better about your appearance. It is a distraction that can help break the cycle of negative thoughts that feed anxiety and depression. And doing something positive can help you cope in a healthy way, rather than turning to drinking alcohol, ignoring symptoms, or isolating yourself from friends and family.
According to Harvard University, one study published by the Archives of Internal Medicine in 1999 found that aerobic exercise worked as well as antidepressants in easing depression symptoms over a 16-week period. Although the patients taking an antidepressant saw the swiftest response, a follow-up study found that the effects of exercise lasted longer than those of antidepressants. Researchers concluded that for those patients who need or wish to avoid drugs, exercise may be an acceptable substitute.
So what kind of exercise is best? Really, it is anything that gets you moving. It can be difficult to stay motivated when you’re depressed, so finding something you enjoy is important. Running, lifting weights, or swimming are good cardiovascular activities that can improve mood. Since depression can make you feel alone, a group activity such as playing basketball or taking a fitness class can help you feel connected to other positive people. Even walking, one of the best forms of exercise, for 30 minutes a day, five times a week can significantly influence mild to moderate depression symptoms.
May is Mental Health Month. For more information about mental health and month-long activities to raise awareness of mental health conditions and mental well-being, visit www.mentalhealthamerica.net/go/may.
For a list of mental health resources in Sacramento county and surrounding areas, visit www.dhhs.saccounty.net.