In today’s stressful world, it’s not surprising that many people struggle with depression and anxiety, which decrease quality of life, and can lead to hospitalization and even suicide. Although mental illness doesn’t always command the same attention as physical diseases, it certainly is just as debilitating and serious.
Anxiety is the most common mental illness in the United States, with approximately 40 million people over the age of 18 affected. Depression is also very common, estimated to impact roughly 16 million Americans. Degrees and severity of each illness vary, along with criteria for diagnosis, but psychologists and psychiatrists can diagnose these disorders and develop treatment plans.
Because depression and anxiety are complex, causes also are varied, and can differ from person to person. Common causes of depression include genetics/family history, death or loss, serious illness, abuse, conflict, certain medications and substance abuse. Anxiety can result from death of a loved one, personal relationship problems, financial troubles, disease or medical conditions, phobias, drugs and issues with work or school.
Several treatments exist for depression and anxiety that can help control symptoms and maintain a better quality of life. Among them: counseling, psychotherapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, medication, exercise and others. In fact, exercise is one of the most accessible and least expensive treatments to adopt, and research indicates that exercise is very effective in reducing depression and anxiety.
How Exercise Helps
Depression and anxiety are caused by a complicated interaction among parts of the brain that affect mood, neurotransmitters, hormones, genes, temperament and life’s stressors. These neurotransmitters play a role in depression and anxiety:
- Acetylcholine – enhances memory and affects learning and recall
- Serotonin – regulates sleep, appetite and mood, and inhibits pain
- Norepinephrine – constricts blood vessels, and may trigger anxiety and be involved in some types of depression
- Dopamine – influences motivation and impacts how a person perceives reality
- Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) – acts as an inhibitory neurotransmitter, and can help control anxiety
Medications to treat depression and anxiety help to rebalance or increase some of these neurotransmitters, and many options are available today. If one pharmaceutical isn’t particularly effective, often a different medication will provide relief.
Exercise stimulates the release of the “feel-good” hormones, like serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine, which can improve mood and enhance sense of well-being. Exercise also serves as a stress release and an escape or distraction from depression or anxiety, which can moderate symptoms.
And regular workouts offer many other benefits for those struggling with depression and anxiety, such as:
- Improves overall health – this includes weight management, blood pressure, cardiovascular health, diabetes, cholesterol and more
- Boosts energy – for those who are depressed, this alleviates some of the persistent lethargy and listlessness
- Increases self-confidence – becoming more fit can help with self-image, and setting and meeting workout goals contributes to a feeling of accomplishment
- Enhances self-efficacy – proactively doing something productive to help manage depression and anxiety are empowering and contribute to a more positive outlook
- Offers social interaction – joining a health club or fitness class provides opportunities to meet others, which reduces social isolation
- Encourages healthy choices – routinely working out can stimulate overall better self-care, such as eating a more nutritious diet, scheduling regular doctor visits and more
- Reduces stress – physical activity is an effective outlet for constant tension and the “fight or flight” that many people with anxiety feel
- Improves memory – greater blood flow to the brain can keep you sharper
- Enhances sleep – people who exercise regularly have better sleep patterns and feel more rested
- Strengthens immune system – a stronger body is more resistant to catching a cold, the flu and other ailments
Even though exercise may be the last thing someone with depression or anxiety wants to do, it is one of the best. What’s important is to get started and do something – even if it’s only for a few minutes. Committing to exercise a few times each week, and recognizing that this is an important part of improving one’s mental health, is critical.
It’s best to get a doctor’s approval prior to starting an exercise program, particularly for those taking medication for depression or anxiety. And a mental health professional can help monitor the effectiveness of exercise, suggesting changes or modifying treatment if necessary along the way.
Although people with mood disorders may initially dread exercise, ultimately, with all the benefits it confers, the goal is for them to crave it and make it a lifelong habit. Rather than a “should,” exercise should be perceived as a privilege and a priority.
So the first steps can be easy – simply going for brisk walks, bike rides or swims. Individuals should find something they enjoy and start doing that regularly. High-intensity, panting and dripping with sweat aren’t necessary to experience mental health benefits.
That said, for best results, aim for 3-4 sessions per week, ideally for 15-60 minutes, at a moderate to vigorous intensity as tolerated. If you need motivation, consider finding a workout buddy who can keep you accountable, and schedule times together. Or try a group exercise class or work with a personal trainer, which can provide camaraderie, guidance and a consistent schedule. Joining a health club opens a multitude of options and variety for workout regimens.
If you feel self-conscious, work out at home, with streaming videos, apps or DVDs. Yoga can provide a valuable mind-body connection and help foster inner peace. Or buy a piece of cardio equipment and/or some strength training accessories and create your own regimen. You can have a personal trainer come to your home to develop a routine, or consult online resources to develop your program.
There are no right or wrong forms of exercise for depression and anxiety – cardio is good, strength training has benefits, yoga and Pilates offer advantages, and more. It’s less about what specific modality you are doing and more important to consistently challenge yourself consistently and be mindful of how your body and mind feel.
Even for those who don’t have depression or anxiety, sometimes life gets in the way, making it tough to maintain a consistent exercise routine. While workouts are an integral part of therapy, if you miss a few, don’t beat yourself up and quit altogether. Get right back into your routine as soon as possible, focusing on moving forward.
If you are bored, change your routine. Find a new class or join a walking or running club; check out different workout apps; participate in a local sports league; sign up for a race to benefit charity or set specific goals to work toward. Create some new playlists; vary your cycling route; buy new workout apparel; or pick up additional exercise accessories. It’s always better to do something – and every little bit counts – than nothing at all.
And if you’re not getting any relief for depression and anxiety from ongoing exercise, be sure to talk to your mental health professional, as exercise isn’t a cure-all, and you may need other treatments or adjustments to ensure the most success over time. Remember, however, that regardless of your mental health, exercise is one of the best therapies overall for the mind and the body. Take advantage of it!