January is not my favorite month: the holidays are over, the weather is dark and dreary and spring and summer are a long way off. All of that adds up to a recipe for the blues. Well, here’s some good news: you know that exercise is good for your physical body, but did you know it can also boost your mood? Numerous research studies have confirmed that exercise is an antidote to both major and mild depression, responsible not only for improving emotional well-being, but also for increasing self-esteem, reducing anxiety and enhancing sleep.
There are several theories on how exercise works as anti-depressant. When you exercise, endorphins, the body’s natural pain killers, are released into the bloodstream, providing relief from aches and pain that often accompany depression. Completing a workout can also increase one’s sense of self-control and accomplishment while providing a distraction from negative, obsessive thought patterns.
Exercise can also stimulate appetite which often declines with depression. Conversely, if a depressed person is overweight, exercise can facilitate weight loss which in turn improves self-esteem. Exercising in a group further provides an opportunity for social support for depressed individuals who tend to withdraw from other people.
Regular exercise can also alleviate the insomnia that typically accompanies depression. When depressed individuals are able to sleep longer and more deeply, they experience a higher energy level during the day which in turn gives them more energy to exercise. Exercise can also boost brain levels of serotonin which helps assuage the anxiety that often goes with depression.
Many people prone to depression find that exercising first thing in the morning helps boost their mood and their energy for the rest of the day. Starting the morning with a daily walk or swim can set the stage for an upbeat, energetic day. A well-rounded fitness program includes cardiovascular, resistance and flexibility training. But if you are battling the blues, don’t worry about what form of exercise you do. Just get moving! Pick something that brings you pleasure - whether it be basketball, yoga or salsa dancing. It also helps to have a support system. I know that when I’m feeling down, there’s nothing better than walking and talking with a friend. I call it “walk/talk therapy” and it really helps me.
While exercise cannot necessarily take the place of medication, in many cases it can be an important adjunct to a treatment program and may eliminate the need for antidepressants in cases of mild depression.