Say you have a boss who puts you down so constantly that your emotional health starts to suffer. After one particularly tough exchange, you close your laptop and set off for a 10-mile run. Back home, your feelings have lost their edge and you spend the afternoon productively. In this case, exercise had a clear effect on your mood—but what if your sadness and difficulty making decisions persist for weeks or months? Can exercise help with depression? The simple answer is yes. Research has shown the positive effects of exercise on depression. For some people, exercise can complement other therapies and help improve symptoms of depression. But like many other strategies for alleviating depression, exercise doesn’t help everyone, and it isn’t a one-stop cure or a replacement for professional treatment.
How Does Exercise Help Relieve Depression?
There are many theories about the benefits of exercise for depression. Some effects of exercise on depression are psychological and emotional: Exercise can distract you from your worries. It can give you a sense of control and boost your self-confidence and self-esteem. Studies have also demonstrated that exercise has beneficial physiological effects. It can increase levels of certain chemicals in the brain, including endorphins, which reduce pain, and neurotransmitters, which enhance signaling between brain cells.
Exercise also stimulates muscles to secrete chemicals that increase levels of a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF, which is essential for growing and maintaining healthy brain cells. Increasing the levels of these chemicals counteracts the impacts of depression, which is associated with impeded signaling in areas of the brain that regulate mood. To benefit from exercise, you don’t have to go all out running, swimming, biking, or lifting weights. Low-intensity exercises such as yoga and stretching can be effective, too. Even minor exercise can help. Try something more manageable for you, such as gardening, housework, taking a walk, or using the stairs instead of the elevator.
But if exercise feels like too much for you, don’t worry. It doesn’t mean you’re lazy. Remember that depression is a medical condition that saps your energy and impairs your ability to focus, feel motivated, and act on plans. After you get treatment for depression, you can identify the best way to slowly add exercise into your tool kit of strategies to maintain your overall well-being.
Exercise Your Options to Seek Treatment
The most important step is to seek treatment from mental health professionals. They can offer a variety of therapies that successfully relieve the symptoms of depression. Most frequent among first-line treatment strategies are talk therapy (Interpersonal, Psychodynamic or cognitive behavioral therapy) and antidepressant medications. But just as exercise itself isn’t a silver bullet for depression, roughly 1 in 3 people don’t experience relief even after trying two medications. If you’ve struggled to find an effective depression treatment, consider Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) therapy.
TMS is a non-invasive, drug-free treatment in which a device near your scalp delivers gentle magnetic pulses, similar to those in an MRI scan. You sit comfortably during the session, remaining awake and alert. The pulses stimulate changes in brain chemical signaling that can alleviate symptoms of Major Depressive Disorder. TMS is FDA-cleared for those who have tried one medication without success (and covered by most insurance policies after two medications). Depression affects different people in different ways. Some treatments work for some individuals, but not for others. Finding the right option for you is critical for both your mental and your physical health, especially if it helps you enjoy and engage in regular exercise. To learn more about whether TMS is right for you, schedule a no-cost consultation.