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Study Shows Exercise Fights Depression

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Exercise for depression - Dr. Axe

We hear a lot about the need to stay physically active in order to support both our physical and mental health. You probably already know that exercise is important for heart health and your weight, but what do studies show about its impact on your mood — does exercise actually help with depression?

There’s good reason to believe that there are, in fact, many uses of exercise for depression, including because physical activity fights fatigue and can reduce pain. Exercise can relieve anxiety too — plus it often leads to improved sleep, focus, self-esteem and productivity.

What type of exercise is best for mental health? As explained more below, it’s important to do the types you enjoy and that you can stick with long term, such as walking outside, lifting weights or commuting by bike.

Study Findings: Exercise Combats Depression

A 2022 systematic review and meta-analysis published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry investigated the association between physical activity and depression in adults. The review, which included 15 studies and over 191,000 participants, found an inverse curvilinear association between physical activity and incident depression, meaning exercise decreased depression up until a certain point.

Adults who reported meeting physical activity recommendations — which is equivalent to about 2.5 hours of moderate exercise per week, such as brisk walking or cycling — had lower risks of developing depression compared to adults who reported not being physically active at all.

Even relatively small doses of physical activity were associated with substantially lower risks of depression. In fact, the biggest difference in depression symptoms was seen between people who were sedentary and those who did at least some exercise every week.

In the study, adults who did half the recommended amount of physical activity each week had about 18% less risk of depression compared to sedentary adults. Those meeting the recommended amount of exercise had 25% lower risk.

Beyond this point, there were diminishing additional benefits observed. In other words, doing higher volumes of physical activity above the recommended amount (2.5 hours per week) won’t necessarily protect your mental health any more.

In conclusion, just like many studies have demonstrated over the past several decades, making an effort to stay active and fit can serve as a natural remedy for depression.

Why It Matters:

Researchers estimate that if less active adults achieved the current physical activity recommendations each week, then about 12% of depression cases could be prevented.

According to the World Health Organization, depression is the leading cause of mental health–related disabilities worldwide. What does depression do to a person? Symptoms and signs of depression can include:

  • Persistent feelings of sadness, worthlessness and hopelessness
  • Fatigue
  • Low motivation for physical activities
  • Social withdrawal and isolation, along with loneliness
  • Aches and pains
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Brain fog and trouble concentrating
  • Irritability and restlessness
  • Changes in appetite
  • Digestive issues
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • In severe cases, suicidal thoughts and attempts

How to Fit More Exercise Into Your Day

Which exercise is good for depression? Just about all types are beneficial, including strength training, aerobic exercises, and both moderate and high-intensity exercise (or HIIT workouts).

Moderate exercise is the most widely recommended types for adults of all ages, including older adults. It’s defined as “activity that gets you moving fast enough or strenuously enough to burn off three to six times as much energy per minute as you do when you are sitting quietly.”

Here are some examples of moderate exercise:

  • Brisk walking outside or on a treadmill
  • Cycling indoors or outdoors at a moderate pace
  • Gentle hiking
  • Swimming
  • Playing tennis
  • Lifting weights
  • Doing bodyweight exercises like yoga or pilates
  • Heavy cleaning in your home or even mowing your lawn or shoveling show

More vigorous exercise can boost your mindset too, such as running or jogging, playing most sports like soccer, and cycling at a fast pace.

How long do you need to exercise to help depression?

In the study mentioned above, meeting exercise recommendations offered the most mental health perks.

The current recommendation is 2.5 hours of moderate exercise per week, or about 30 minutes most days of the week. If you enjoy doing more, then by all means do so, but don’t feel obligated if it feels like too much.

How can you add more movement and exercise to your day?

Below are some ideas for sneaking more physical activity into your day:

  • Try commuting by bike or foot whenever possible.
  • Park farther away from destinations and walk.
  • Take the stairs whenever possible rather than elevators.
  • Do yoga or pilates at home when you have free time, such as by following a YouTube video.
  • Do light calisthenics, such as squats or lunges, when watching TV.
  • Take your pet for daily walks, or walk together as a family.
  • Use a standing or treadmill desk instead of sitting for hours.
  • Try having “walking meetings” or walking while on the phone.

Other Ways to Fight Depression

  • Work on getting enough sleep. Aim for seven to nine hours per night.
  • Eat a healthy diet. Increase your consumption of fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds, and consume plenty of omega-3 foods and healthy fats like fish and olive oil. Limit your intake of added sugar, processed foods, fast foods, commercial bakery goods and sweets.
  • Reduce your alcohol intake, and quit using drugs and/or smoking.
  • Get some fresh air and sunlight every day.
  • Consider taking supplements that may help your mood, such as fish oil, vitamin D, B vitamins, adaptogenic herbs and  St. John’s wort.

Conclusion

  • Studies show there are many benefits of exercise for depression and other mood issues. A 2022 meta-analysis found that meeting exercise recommendations can slash your risk of depression by about 25%.
  • The review, which included 15 studies, uncovered significant mental health benefits from being physically active, even at low levels.
  • Moderate exercise for about 2.5 hours per week, or about 30 minutes most days of the week, is thought to be enough to support mental health.
  • Try including more walking, swimming, cycling, hiking and even cleaning or mowing into your routine to boost your activity level.

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