Exercise helps you stay sharp as you age and reduces cognitive decline. But did you know physical activity is good for your head in other ways? It can improve mood, reduce anxiety and produce a sense of well-being. This provides the positive feedback that encourages us to keep training. What’s more, evidence has been accumulating that exercise can help relieve and possibly even prevent depression.
Physical effects are easier to measure than emotions, so this is a difficult subject to study. There have been few, if any, large-scale, controlled studies, but research shows fairly consistently that exercise can improve mood and help reduce depression. A few years ago, for instance, a small Italian study found that women with depression who had not responded to antidepressants did improve when they engaged in a supervised cardio-fitness program over an eight-month period.
Why would exercise affect your emotional state? It can boost various nervous system chemicals—notably dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin—that influence mood. Even something as simple as the slight rise in body temperature caused by exercise might have a calming and pleasurable effect, as can the rhythms of the activity.
Psychology also comes into play. Any type of exercise can provide a sense of control and accomplishment. It can serve as a distraction or time-out from daily anxieties and concerns.
I’ve exercised for most of my adult life, and though I don’t have depression, I know that exercise makes me feel better. As the ancient Romans put it, mens sana in corpore sano—a healthy mind goes with a healthy body.
If you are one of the millions suffering from depression, you probably know that there are a variety of approaches to treatment, and you may have to try several. Though it can be hard to get motivated if you’re depressed, exercise is a great option. It probably cannot replace therapy and/or medication, however, especially if you are severely depressed. Keep in mind:
• Pick an activity that gets you out of the house and into the company of others. Depressed people tend to isolate themselves, and isolation contributes to depression.
• Any exercise appears to help, but it has to suit you and you have to do it regularly. If you don’t like jogging or lifting weights, try walking or swimming. Running on a treadmill may not be as rewarding as hiking in the woods. If you find exercise boring, try listening to audio books—I go through a couple a month while running—or music. For variety, alternate moderate exercise with short bursts at higher intensity.
I can’t promise that exercise will lift your mood, let alone cure depression, but it’s well worth a try. And even if your workouts don’t do the trick, they’re still good for your body and brain in so many other ways.