Whether it is a simple case of the Monday blues or something more persistent, one of the best things you can do for yourself when you feel down is to get up and move around—walk around the block, stretch your legs, go outside and get some fresh air.
One of the first things doctors and therapists suggest in treating depression is regular exercise. While exercise is important to maintaining your overall health, it can be particularly helpful in exciting parts of the brain that are not as responsive when you are feeling depressed, and helpful to picking yourself up.
The physical benefits of exercise are one component of its effectiveness in combating depression; the main reason exercise is such an effective treatment is due more to its effect on brain chemistry.
Exercise and Brain Chemistry
“Simply put, most people who are depressed have something wrong with their brain chemistry," says William Walsh, PhD, president of the Walsh Research Institute, a non-profit mental health research institution based in Illinois.
Depression is a complex condition with several contributing factors, but according to Walsh, “life experiences can make things worse, but usually the dominant problem is chemistry."
Exercise may be effective in helping to treat depression and related symptoms. Not only does exercise cause you to experience a sense of pleasure, but it also helps to strengthen and maintain your muscle tone.
Endorphins and More
The first thing you might think of when it comes to exercise and depression is what is commonly referred to as “runner’s high”—the release of endorphins, or brain chemicals that prevent us from feeling pain, your brain experiences as you physically exert yourself. But endorphins are only one in a series of neurotransmitters that are stimulated when we exercise. Dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin are all important brain chemicals that regular exercise may help regulate.
More is Better
While any amount of exercise can be helpful in treating depression, it is probably no surprise that more is better. Some studies have shown regular exercise, and the resulting improvement in general fitness that comes with it, can positively impact serotonin levels in the brain. Raising the levels serotonin boosts mood and an overall sense of well being; it can also help to improve appetite and sleep cycles, which often suffer as a result of depression and related symptoms.
These neurotransmitters also work to balance more stress-oriented brain chemicals, such as adrenaline, which is burned off as we exercise. Really, it is sort of a two for one treatment—exercise stimulates more positive brain chemistry and helps burn off mental and physical stress. There are some types of exercise that are perhaps more beneficial than others.
The Right Type of Exercise
Aerobic and cardiovascular workouts are most associated with positive results in treating depression. Besides all of the physical benefits we associate with aerobic exercise, the elevated heartbeat improves circulation in the brain, resulting in healthy brain functions and more balanced brain chemistry. Doing thirty minutes of aerobic exercise per day, four or five days a week, can help to regulate our bodies and our brains against depression.
The Right Diet
Eating a diet that promotes wellness—particularly “good” carbohydrates and protein-rich foods, as they promote and improved mood and concentration, respectively—also helps to stretch the positive effects exercise has in fighting off depression.
More Mental Health Benefits of Exercise
Beyond the chemical level, exercise has other mental benefits for people experiencing depression. While it may be difficult to literally pick ourselves up and be active when we are feeling down, when we do, we are taking a step to help ourselves, to do something positive to improve ourselves on several levels. One way to make it easier to get started is to exercise with a friend, or in a social atmosphere—walking in the park, taking a yoga class, joining a team, etc. Then we enjoy the physical stimulation of a work out while also getting some social stimulation.
So remember, when we are depressed, there may a range of contributing ?factors, but our brain chemistry is an important one, and one that can be addressed effectively with something as simple (and often as cheap) as regular exercise. When Walsh tells us “the brain is, essentially, a chemical factory,” it is good to know that one way to get a more positive output from our “factories” is perhaps taking a walk.