Marathon runners and other distance athletes are familiar with the concept of a “runner’s high”. Yoga practitioners strive for a sense of “being in the moment”. Professional athletes achieve high levels of performance when they are “in the zone”. Regardless of how it is characterized, the sense of well-being that accompanies physical exercise is an effective counter-balance to depression. Counselors and therapists are increasingly using exercise programs to treat depression and other similar psychological disorders.
Exercise and Depression
The physical benefits of exercise are well-documented. Exercise improves heart health and energy levels. It can lower your blood pressure, reduce your body fat, and improve your muscle tone and bone density. Physical activity also reduces perceived stress, boosts self-esteem, and leads to better sleep. When you feel good, you can better handle the adverse effects of depression.
Researchers are gaining a better understanding of the mechanisms that create these benefits. Physical activity causes a release of endorphins and other neurotransmitters into your metabolic system that make you feel good. It also bolsters your immune system and reduces immune system stressors that can contribute to bad feelings. Exercising in group settings or classes will put you in a social environment that can improve your sense of well-being. At its most basic level, strenuous exercise can distract you from focusing on any bad feelings that might be holding you back.
Exercise in Recovery
This does not suggest that exercise can or should be a total substitute for other treatments, particularly if depression is severe or is the result of a deep-seated psychological trauma. In these more extreme situations, exercise is an effective adjunct treatment that complements more traditional therapies. Even the smallest amount of physical activity, such as walking outside for ten minutes or doing light housework, can help an individual who is mired in a depressive mindset.
Starting small and simple is a key to integrating exercise effectively into a therapeutic program to treat an individual’s depression, particularly if that individual has never participated in any exercise programs. An easy ten- to fifteen minute daily walk can provide a good foundation to increase physical activity to 30 minutes or more per day. A therapist who recommends an exercise program will want to remain vigilant to confirm that a person’s failure to follow those recommendations does not contribute to a deeper sense of failure and depression. Exercise should be treated as a reward and not as a mandatory event. It should also be scheduled into a person’s daily routine, rather than being left as something to do if and when an individual has time to exercise after a long day of job and family responsibilities.
The number of individuals who suffer from mild depression has grown as society has become more sedentary. Physical exercise may not reverse this greater trend, but it can help individuals to regain some sense of well-being that may have gotten lost with the trend toward inactivity.
For more information and suggestions on how exercise can help alleviate your depression symptoms, please call Sustain Recovery Services at (949) 407-9052.